The Philosophy of Ordinary Things

beach at coronado

 

 

 

 

 

I snapped this picture a couple of years ago. Nothing extraordinary, really. Just a picture of average-looking waves on a beach.

Since ¾ of the world is covered with water, the sight of waves on a beach is an extremely common thing.

Quite ordinary.

Yet, the view from such an ordinary shore, watching the unspectacular tide rolling in and out, always gets me thinking.

Even looking at a photo taken a couple of years ago gets me in the thinking mood.

In the philosophical mood.

I think of the vastness of the ocean. Of the water. And of all the millions, even billions of file forms populating the depths.

I think of how all those lives play a part in the life of the ocean, and how each of those lives plays a part in my life, and the circle of life on the planet Earth.

Looking at the waves, I think how, of all the possible worlds in the universe, I am here: how I am on this one, covered with water, not too close, yet not to far from our life-giving Sun. how unlikely it was that any life, let alone for my life, to exist.

I see the tranquility of the waves and how peaceful it looks from the shore; how it all looks from a view on the beach.

I think of my part in all of it.

My obligation to others – human and non-human. To the other people standing on the beach, looking out at the ocean, wondering about the life beneath the waves, their place in the universe, and about all those other people standing on the beach thousands of miles away.

All of us wondering what it all means –

If it means anything at all.
I think of this.

While standing on an ordinary beach.

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Writer’s block is a complete jerk

I can’t write.

Nah, that’s not right. I’m writing right now. This blog post.

Right now.

See, the thing is, I’m supposed to be writing a book. Since I decided to do this “writing philosophy” thing professionally, and I’ve already written one book on the subject, to consider myself an actual writer of philosophy I have to write.

Books, not blogs.

I really don’t even think what I have is writer’s block. After all, I am writing this blog post right now. I can write blog posts fairly easily. I once wrote eight posts in one day. (Really, I did). What my problem is, is that I’ve got some kind of philosophical performance anxiety. I’m right about to jump in the sack with some W.V.O. Quine but instead of something, there’s nothing. Instead of ED, I’ve got PD — philosophical dysfunction.

I don’t think there’s a pill to cure it, though. No Viagra for philosophers.

Man, that analogy was bad.

I remember sitting in my philosophy classes thinking (I realize arrogantly so) that writing stuff about things I’ve been thinking about shouldn’t really be that hard. I like philosophy. I like writing. I thought, if becoming a writer of philosophy means all I have to do is think about stuff and write it down, it should be easy peasy, right? I mean, come on, I said to myself, if my professors could do it, there was no way in hell that I couldn’t pull it off.

i totally blame these people for filling me with philosophical delusions

Heck, the guys on “Philosophy Talk” make chatting about philosophy seem not only easy, but downright fun and entertaining.

these are the hosts of “philosophy talk”, John Perry and Ken Taylor. do not be fooled by all the fun they seem to be having. it is highly unlikely that doing philosophy (even of you’re having fun) will get you your own radio show.

I’ve been writing on the same six pages of my book for three months.

I guess I was wrong.

I guess it’s not too late to change my mind about writing philosophy.

If I give it up I suppose that I wouldn’t have to think up any more bad Quine analogies.

this is W.V.O. Quine. in case you were curious.

… I wonder if that topless club is still hiring?

Thinkin’ about thinkin’

I’ve been watching too much TV. For someone of my age and level of education, I shouldn’t spend any time, let alone spend an entire day watching 27 DVR’d episodes of Tosh.0. I shouldn’t derive any pleasure whatsoever watching a little girl play with a dead squirrel, the cinnamon challenge or a kid splitting his taint with his skateboard. I’m a philosopher, I tell myself. I’m better than this. I tell myself I’ve been spending so much time on my back watching television – on my sofa, on my bed, even laying prone on my living room floor; that I’m in danger of becoming one of those people that sits so long in one place that I fuse to a piece of furniture and a rescue crew has to extract me from my house using a chainsaw and a forklift.

I’m a philosopher, I tell myself. I’m better than this.

But every night when I watch TV, I’m even more convinced that thinking philosophically isn’t as FUN as my college professors said it would be. Everybody on TV seems to be much happier once they stop doing all that terrible and emotionally upsetting philosophically-oriented thinking. This isn’t just my opinion. Modern science tells us that thinking is a prime cause of stress, and stress, as we all know leads to disease and early death. I’m no medical doctor but I think it’s safe to assume if thinking in general makes one’s life stressful, then thinking philosophically must be a highway straight to joining the choir invisible. Even if Socrates said that the point of philosophy (i.e. thinking) is to prepare us for death, I can say with confidence that I’m not planning on dying any time soon.

Besides, I’m pretty sure that the double rainbows guy didn’t read Plato, Nietzsche or Sartre to ask “What does this mean?” … All that guy did was look at a couple of rainbows.

After approximately fifteen minutes of contemplation, I decided to give up philosophical thinking. Watching reality television is better than contemplating reality. I concluded if I’m going to think about something other than philosophy, I’d think about the least philosophical things imaginable. This is what I thought about:

I’m pretty sure at one point in my life I’ve eaten dog.

Which is better: bikini or hipsters?

My inexplicable attraction to Rachel Maddow.

Painting my toenails pink.

Memory foam pillows aren’t better.

Kris Kardashian’s haircut

Dotting my “i”s with hearts when I write longhand.

Now, I could tell everyone and insist that a new philosophy-free lifestyle is intellectually and emotionally satisfying, but I’d be lying. Any philosophy professor philosopher will tell you, philosophy isn’t merely something that one does to impress other people or a bad habit that can be started or ended on a whim. Thinking philosophically is an innate part of who we are (Aristotle might call this one’s “telos”). I could avoid thinking philosophically no more than Plato would say a dog can stop participating in dogness or Holbach believed that we can violate the general causal principle (yes, I just dropped a couple of 50¢philosophy terms).

So what do I think about thinking philosophically now? Well… I realized that thinking about not thinking (philosophically) made me think that thinking is not overrated. There’s nothing wrong with watching too much TV or philosophically inappropriate with watching 13 ½ hours of Tosh.0.  I’m certain, despite my brief dalliance with not thinking, that I’ll be up to my usual navel gazing philosophical contemplation in no time. Now that I’m thinking about it, not thinking takes a fair amount of thinking, doesn’t it?

So if you don’t mind, I’m going back to do some “thinking” on my living room sofa.

I’m Pretty Sure I Know Why Philosophers Don’t Get Chicks

I think too much about things. I don’t even discriminate about what I’m thinking about. I remember that Heidegger once said something about a difference between thinking and philosophy. Heidegger encouraged taking long walks to contempate life and stuff. Good advice. Then again, Heidegger also encouraged National Socialism.

Which brings me to what I’ve been thinking about: thinking about thinking too much. It can really be a bad habit. This is a short list of what I thought about today:

  1. why are all the clocks in my house set to a different time?
  2. where is that smell coming from? (i know it’s not the refrigerator since i just cleaned that. can a microwave stink?)
  3. what’s going to happen on season 3 of The Walking Dead?
  4. i hear a meow but i don’t see my cat
  5. the toothpaste stain on my shirt is really noticable
  6. i don’t have enough gifs on my tumblr page
  7. really, where is that damn cat???
  8. three really is a magic number
  9. nicolas cage can’t be that bad an actor

With the exception of item #3, nothing that I thought of today was really worth thinking about –at least not thinking in the sense of Heidegger meant. My thoughts yielded no philosophical insight, no enlightenment, nothing. I could have literally taken my brain out of my skull this morning and my thoughts would have yielded the same result!

Can you believe that’s exactly the problem with thinking? Believe it or not, the problem isn’t when you substitute thinking for philosophy that you’ll end up thinking about the downward trajectory of Nicolas Cage’s film career, but that you don’t think about the trivial stuff  — the stuff that shouldn’t matter — at all.  You see, that’s wha Heidegger really meant when he said we should think instead of philosophize. Thinking about things that shouldn’t matter sometimes gets us ’round to thinking about the things that do.

While On A Walk

I heard that Nietzsche said that most (good) philosophy is done while one is walking. That is to say, that getting out into the world does more to stir one’s mind than does sitting in a university, speaking to other people who do no more than echo exactly what you already think or say. I think that’s true. Sometimes, however, going out for a walk only results in experiences that only confirm why so many people out there, myself unexcluded, claim that they hate humanity. I thought that I would try, for god knows how many umpteeth time, to rid myself of the practice of seeing things so negatively. I thought that I would try to see the bright side of life, as suggested by the Monty Python song. I think that there must be some higher force at work somewhere in the galaxy, because every time I attempt to see the worthiness of humanity as a whole, my hopes are dashed and I only end up confirming that people, as the Slipknot song says, equals shit. Why the bad attitude today? To get back to Nietzsche, I was out for a walk. Nothing monumental, just a short jot before it really got (gets?) hot outside. You see, here in SoCal, there is no such thing as a gradual climb in the temperature. It’s cool one day, and 101 out the next. Go figure. But anyway, I was out for a walk. Which kond of started off nice because I hadn’t literallly been out of the house all week. I was thinking of what I had read the night before (which would be last night) in Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Man Without A Country. He said that He likes talking to people. I don’t. But I, having newly committed myself to sunnying up my personality, decided that I would at least try to enjoy the company of others. So I was walking. Well, I wasn’t enjoying anyone else’s company at that time, since I was walking alone. But that’s kind of besides the point. Now, I know that there are people who, for reasons that only they and their god know, decide that they should shout out things to people walking on the sidewalk or along the road. I’ve personally never understood this phenomenon. Well, that’s precisely what hapened while I was walking. Usually it’s something incoherent. It’s like the person decided to shout something, but then decides to back down — but only after the words have already left his mouth. By the way, it’s almost always a he who does it. Usually, the words they say aren’t so clear. But his time, it was a loud and clear “fuck you!”. This really left me confused. Not to mention that it broke my chain of thought. Now, really. It’s not that the words themselves offended me. They didn’t. I’ve said that particular phrase to other people on more occasions than I care to remind myself that I have. But, usually, at least in the case that I’ve used that phrase, the person to whom the comment was directed deserved to have it said to them. I was just walking. And when I looked to see who said it, the guy seemed pretty angry, too. He looked really pissed off. How can I explain that? I thought, for a moment, that I might have done something to offend the guy. I thought about what I was wearing — just a pair of blue jeans and a black t-shirt. That usually doesn’t get people that worked up. I was wearing a backpack, but there’s nothing on that that I think would upset anyone. I took all of my anti-Bush patches off after the election. Besides, I don’t think by the looks of this guy that he would have noticed if they were still there. For a few moments, I really thought about why that guy would have said, no, shouted it. Seeing that I’ve been programmed to think that there is a philosophical angle to be had in everything, I actually attempted to flip through the (limited) list of philosophers in my head to see if any of them ever addressed why people feel the need to shout things to people who aren’t doing anything to them. I couldn’t think of any. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that there must be some explanation for why this is. There is, but I guess that, in the long run, the answer is psychological rather than philosophical. There is some not-so-deep seeded need in some people to yell at people — the more shocking the statement the better. And since you’re in a car, and your intended shockee is walking, you’re long gone before the person ever gets his bearings straight enough for a proper response, whatever that would be. (What would be the proper response? An “ok, thanks buddy” or a “well, good day to you, too”?) I’m guessing that, on this subject at least, philosophers may be mum on exactly why this is so, that is, why people feel compelled to shout things at people walking down the street. (Which would mean that at last there is something that philosophers don’t have an opinion about!) So, I guess my queries on the subject are better directed to the headshrinker than to the guy in the front of the class boring his class to death with examples of Gettier problems. I don’t see how anyone would find a way to worm the need to shout “fuck you!” to passersby into some epistemic debate or metaphysical claim about the existence of monads. But I’m certain that some philosopher has some opinion about why people do. They can’t leave any subject untarnished by their (expert) thoughts about everything. Whatever.

Conversation Enders # 15: How To Appear Smart While Convincing Others How Stupid You Really Are Or, A Short Treatise On Pretentiousness and Choplogic

When I was in elementary school (5th grade to be precise), my 5th grade teacher, who shall remain nameless (not so much to protect his identity, but to avoid being sued), initiated a lesson that proved that “gifted and talented” kids may not be so. Some teachers did and still operate under the impression that so-called topnotch children should develop their critical thinking skills. This idea is obviously a big mistake. Try to see where this idea goes wrong. My 5th grade teacher attempted to introduce a classroom full of eleven year-olds to the philosophic enterprise of logical thinking. Yeah, right. Dude, we were eleven year olds! It’s difficult enough to get a classroom full of well over twenty one year-olds to sit down and shut up during an actual college level philosophy class, let alone attempting to reason with a group of hyperactive and disinterested kids (and we really were disinterested in learning any of that crap) that reading philosophy was going to make us into better people. The only thing that I remember about the whole ordeal is that the focus of all that crap he had us reading about was some dude named Harry Stottlemeyer. Needless to say, the attempt did not go over — at all. It was a lead zeppelin in the truest sense of the phrase. Unfortunately, my teacher’s failed attempt was just the first of many attempts by subsequent teachers to nurture one of education’s worst side effects — thinking too much. This overthinking is a problem to say the least. It affects both the educated and the uneducated alike. Unfortunately, it’s found among the educated in greater frequency than any other segment of society. This overthinking silll leads to another affliction among the over-educated set: the need to convince others how smart we are. If you’ve spent too much time around these over-educated types, you mave have noticed that they tend to manifest their need to impress with their brainpower in one of two ways: 1) impressing others with their extensive book knowledge. This is usually examplified by the incessant need to add more detail or backstory to information that other people already know. For example, a group of people are discussing the evils of slavery in the Americas. There is no real need to add detail to the horrors of slavery more than the fact that human beings were bought and sold as property. But the individual who needs to impress others with his smarts will inevitably add such factoids as the fact that the first recorded slaves came to the Americas in 1620, and that, throughout the slave-holding states, it was illegal for a slave to own a comb, or that, because of the prevalence of rape of female slaves, as high as 70% of the U.S. black population has European ancestry. It’s not that these facts aren’t entertaining or interesting. But the plain truth is, is that no one asked to hear what the guy had to say. His point was that he had to prove that he knew more about the subject than anyone else in the room. The second type of overthinker is the worst of the two: he is the person who finds the hidden significance and deep meaning in damn-near everything he sees — no matter how trivial or insignificant the thing is. We’ve all seen this jerk. Let’s say that there is a group of people reminiscing about the incredibly stupid TV shows that aired during their collective adolescence. The show that they are discussing is the incredibly, mind-numbingly awful saturday morning classic, Saved By the Bell. Without ever being invited into the discussion, Mr. Smarter-than-you decides that he is going to learn everyone about how Screetch reflects Hegelian alienation, or what Slater’s physique can teach us about Platonic forms. He decides to wow us all by explaining in painstaking detail, how Zach is really Nietzsche’s ubermensche. Whichever one we encounter, conversations tend to drift into the realm of the academic — where words like “pedantic”, “didactic”, and “soporific” come to mind ( I did a little wowing myself just there. I pulled out three 50 cent words!) All this overthinking (bombastic overthnking at that) tends to result in the exact opposite effect that it is intended to have. Amazingly, overthinking deralis thought. It creates a type of disposition in those who are prone to overthinking that we should only think about those things that are “important”. Inevitably, this line of thinking itself tends to cast the net of subject mater very narrowly. Conversations tend to be small and for the most part, uninteresting. I say, if you want to try this out, try talking to an academic about any subject other than their subject of choice or expertise. Good luck. The unfortunate result of this mindset is that those who think too much are often accused of snobbery. This, I think, has to do with why so many Americans are so dismissive of education. It’s esay to see that we have a real disdain for bookworms, smarty-pants, know-it-all’s. We hated Al Gore in part because he came off like he was smarter than everyone else (and worse yet, knew that he was). The allegation, however, isn’t entirely untrue. People who overthink are sometimes arrogant jerks who do feel that they are the smartest people in the room. The unfortunate side effect for those who overthink is that many of them become so wrapped up in being dismissive of anything that does not warrant intellectual merit, that they often miss the point of thinking entirely. The key is that we must remind ourselves that it’s not that nothing trivial has significance to it. Eric Draven (aka, “The Crow”) said that nothing is trivial. Unfortunately for Mr. Draven, he realized that fact after he was stabbed a few times and chucked out of a 4th story window. For the majority of us, our lesson need not be so extreme. Now, it may be true that there are really trivial things that lack any significance whatsoever (for instance, it is a waste of time to contemplate the philosophic significance of my big toe), but it is easy to understand Draven’s sentiment. When it comes to overthinking, we have a problem. But, our solution is not dismissing all as insignificant, either. During the last KPFK fund drive (wait, that might still be going on now), a host lamented the fact that there are a bunch of movies at the cineplexes that don’t teach anything. That statement, and I think that she might take offense to my supposition, is exactly what is wrong with overthinking. It is possible to find, if one looks hard enough, significance or a lesson in nearly anything. I’d say that her problem is, is that she was being intellectually lazy and dismissing anything that set out to entertain as its first priority as non-instructive. There is as much to learn from Madea as we can learn from a documentary about detainees at Gitmo. (Really, this is true). That’s the trap. There is a possibility that, with all of our looking, that we run the possibility of looking too deep. The key is finding what the Buddha called the “middle way”. That is, when we look for significance, we must be careful not to overthink, but we must also watch that we do not underthink, either. Take what you watch or read or hear with caution. I was listening to “Fresh Air” a couple of nights ago while I was washing dishes. Terry Gross was talking to Woody Allen. I’ve been around philosophy types long enough to know that this guy is the total package so far as filmmakers go. Ask any philosopher which Woody Allen film he digs and you’ll be sure to hear Annie Hall, or Crimes and Misdemeanors sure as I can crack my knuckles. Personally, I’m a fan of What’s Up, Tiger Lily?. But that’s just me. I was amazed to hear Woody Allen say (alright, I already kind of knew this) that he isn’t a deep thinker. He says that people look all over his movies, looking for clues for life’s hidden meanings. But to him it seems, his movies are merely the product of his or his partner’s imagination. There is nothing more than what makes for a good story. He says that he’s more likely to be the guy wearing a T-shirt drinking a beer than he’d be the guy knee-deep in some philosophic roundtable discussing the merits of some deep and complex philsophical theory. I know that many philosophers hail Woody Allen as some sort of movie god, and often rank him among those who are “philosophers” in the academic sense. I learned some time ago that Woody Allen, unlike say, Lakers (Go Lakers!) coach Phil Jackson, Harrison Ford or Steve Martin, wasn’t a philosophy major in college. He studied film… and flunked out. But you see, that’s where overthinking gets the best of people. Not only do they see deep thinking where it isn’t, but they also created a persona for a filmmaker to match their own tendency to overthink. I think that the king of (cinematic) pop, George Lucas, said it best when he said that there are people who dismiss films like Star Wars as fluff, but on the flipside, there are people who look way too deep. They’re so busy looking that they miss the point. I’d like to end on this note. I think that it applies: Back in the mid-90s, there was this Tom Petty video for the song “You Don’t Know How It Feels”. The viedo had all sorts of flashy images in it, and plenty of people started asking,”what does all of this mean?” (I guess it’s worth noting that this is the era when video directors like Mark Romanek and Mark Pellingham were churning out videos that had “meaning”). I remember watching VH-1 one afternoon when the subject of Tom Petty’s video came up. The second most frequently asked question about the video (right behind “Is that a man?”) was what did the video mean? Tom Petty’s answer was that the video meant nothing. There was no point other than to throw alot of cool stuff together in a video (although I suspect that there was some deconstructivist that said that there was meaning, and of course, Tom Petty didn’t see it). That’s so cool! And it’s especially cool for this point: you can dig too deep and shoot right past the answer. You can dig enough and find meaning that was lurking in a Romero zombie flick, or finding the Jungian archetypes in Lucas’ Star Wars. But you can also not look at all and still get it. The point in all of this is that, despite my early trauma with the likes of that Stottlemeyer bastard, and my excursion into the academic world of overthinking (something I have not completely shed from my soul yet), I am aware of, and seeking that happy balance between the two extremes.

Half-assed Apologies

While I’m on the subject of negativity, I’d like to acknowldge that, from time to time, I can go a bit too far. I was looking at a previous post I’d written called “I truly hate the well-intentioned”. I was shocked by the level of vitriol that I had expressed in that post. I don’t think I was being so much negative as I was being mean. I must have been really pissed off about someting or on my period to write so meanspiritedly about people who mean well (and the Pacifica listening audience). Sorry to those who were the targets of my meanspirited commentary (and there were particular people that I had in mind writing it). Though I’m apologizing for the level of meanness, I’m not, however, taking abck the sentiment that I had expressed in that post. I still think that people who say that the solution for racism is race-mixing are more than a little misguided in their “solution” for the problem. If you think about it, their solution may be worse than the cure. But I don’t want to open up that can of worms today.