A Parlor Game For Philosophers.

posted in: Day In The Life, Luv, Story, Work 0
Zero portraits of famous philosophers are interesting, therefore I give you the Rockettes at their 2007 Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. Photo: Wikipedia
Zero portraits of famous philosophers are interesting, therefore I give you the Rockettes at their 2007 Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. Photo: Wikipedia

A couple years ago I bought a book called The Philosopher’s Handbook, ed. Stanley Rosen. The book is split up into six topic sections, e.g., Metaphysics, Epistemology, Philosophy of Art and Culture, etc. Within each section, Rosen compiles six or seven excerpts from A-List philosophers across time who have written specifically on these topics and contributed much to philosophical discussions at large. For a layperson like me who wants to know about Kirkegaard but not, like, really know about Kirkegaard, it’s an excellent resource. I pick it up from time to time when I want to read something short and feel smarter, as opposed to reading something short and feeling dumber, e.g., USA Today.

Then I started spending an eyebrow-raising amount of time with a professional philosopher. He has a “Dr.” in front of his name, that’s how good he is at doing philosophy. When he saw The Philosopher’s Handbook on my coffee table the other day, he picked it up like, “Oh, that’s nice,” and flipped through with “Mm-hm” sounds. Then he put it back down and asked me if I needed yogurt at the store.

So we’re sitting around later (eating yogurt) and I pick up the book. Completely joking, I flip to the middle and read a random sentence from the middle of the page, and ask Claus if he can guess who wrote it. Claus goes,

“That’s Hobbes.”

I choked on a blueberry. “What??!! That’s right! How… How did you –? Wow!” He really is a doctor, I thought; Claus was clearly pleased with himself. I felt happy that when a person has a double Ph.D in their chosen field, they may someday be able to share the depths of their knowledge in an impromptu parlor game. I was impressed — but it could’ve been lucky. Let’s see how good he really is, I thought. Ipso. Facto. I fanned the 600 pages, stuck my finger down, and read:

Man’s first sentiment was that of his existence, his first care that of his preservation.


I looked at him like he was an extraterrestrial. Rosseau was correct. He leaned back on the sofa and wiggled his feet, delighted. Could we go again, he asked? I flipped the book again, keeping my eye on him. I read this one:

Morals are assigned a special compartment in theory and practice because they reflect the divisions embodied in economic and political institutions.

Claus got this right, but I had to read a couple pages before he did. (It’s Dewey.) Out of 12 or so tests, the man got 9.3 of them right; which is about 80%. I would be as impressed to meet a poet who could identify that many poems by author in this way. It’s a beautiful thing to truly know your field; it’s comforting to me when people care so much and work so hard at one thing.

Here’s what I’ve figured out about philosophy since hanging around with a professional: it’s essential. It’s vital to look deeply into how we think, why we think it, how what we think affects what we do, and how what we do shapes us all (and in turn influences how we all think.) We must do it.

Because we’re always getting data — USA Today infographics like to help — with the latest conclusion from brain mapping technology that proves why more people are moving to cities; we get percentages of opinions from focus groups on how smartphones are changing culture. But science, sociology, psychology, number crunching — it comes after philosophy. No handling of information can happen without first understanding what information is in the first place, or how smartphones fit into the history of production and technology vis a vis culture (as opposed to straight timelines.) This stuff is so important and invisible, it’ll melt your brain. Philosophy has a reputation for being confusing and lofty because it gets down to this atomic level of systems of thought. But you can’t launch a rocket without a launchpad. Philosophy is our launchpad. It’s in us already, so fundamental, you don’t see it. You don’t hear it. But you breathe it.

We need philosophers to keep doing their work. I know a good one, if you ever have a question.

Freddy n’ Me.

posted in: Art, Tips 1
Frederich Nietzsche, lost in thought, AS USUAL.
Frederich Nietzsche, lost in thought, AS USUAL.

I ain’t no philosopher.

But I like reading about the nature of existence and being, as long as the concepts are simplified for me by someone other than the philosopher him/herself. (Sorry, Kant, but I can’t.) Several years ago I caught an existential crisis which I have yet to kick. It’s like having chronic hiccups, except that we’re all gonna die. So I read philosophy stuff sometimes to try and sort all of this out.

Like so many before me (and countless souls to come), I found Nietzsche awhile back, my own private Nietzsche, a Nietzsche that ceased being a quip-machine or a bumper sticker punchline and became something like a friend from beyond the grave. It’s so odd to me now that the prevailing concept of Nietzsche (and I held this view once) is that of a dark, brooding fellow with a large mustachioed lip and a death obsession. The large mustache is correct, and he did brood about death, but only insofar as it was the end of life and life was his main concern.

Nietzsche could hardly be described as happy-go-lucky, but he was all about life-affirmation, in fact. This was a guy who said, “Without music, life would be a mistake” and whose concept of a person profoundly in love with life despite the constant suffering and struggle that attends it (the “overman” or Ubermensch) was arguably the tenderloin of his life’s work. It’s critical to note also that Nietzsche would’ve been horrified at how Hitler twisted his philosophy on the overman to suit his wicked Nazi ideology. Nietzsche spoke fearlessly of freedom and truth; he railed against racism, destruction, and dogma. He couldn’t stand politicians — he couldn’t even stand his home country (Germany) so anything you heard about Nietzsche being a Nazi, you can put that to bed.

Something terribly sad happened to Nietzsche in 1889. He was in Turin and not doing very well, suffering from nerves and dyspepsia and all those maladies that seemed to strike everyone in the late 1800s, usually in a parlor. Out his window, presumably while reclining on a fainting couch, Nietzsche saw a coachman on the street brutally beating an old mare. Overcome with grief at the sight, horrified at the cruelty he was seeing, Nietzsche ran out to the street and threw his body in front of the coachman. He gripped the horse around the neck and sobbed in the street at the inhumanity of it all.

After that, he wasn’t the same guy. He lived twelve more years, but he wasn’t well. Some say he had had syphilis for many years and that’s what melted his brain, in the end. Some say he was just fooling people about being nuts, that he was just eccentric and that was that. He died of pneumonia in 1900. And, because the truth is that the man really was a quip-machine, a few juicy aphorisms* from our pal Fred:

“Whatever is done from love always occurs beyond good and evil.”

“A man’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.”

“Talking much about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself.”

“Half-knowledge is more victorious than whole knowledge: it understands things as being more simple than they are and this renders its opinions more easily intelligible and more convincing.”

*Aphorism: a pithy observation that contains a general truth, such as, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”