Philosophy and Life

The relationship between philosophy and life is not always comfortable. Sometimes, it seems like philosophy is some mad abstraction, an insane series of propositions that have nothing to do with life. Monadologies, disseminations, dialectics, moral imperatives: they can seem at such a great distance from eating, fucking, working, sleeping, at such great remove from day to day existence.

To this, I have two responses. On the one hand, there are those philosophies that — at least to me — are insane abstractions — Hegel, Kant, and the rationalists. They do so many bizarre, beautiful things, as if they're forging the most intricate Calder mobile ever, all gossamer and thought. In this sense, these philosophies are immediate in the same sense that a Calder or Pollock or Matthew Ritchie is. They insist as affective forces only the affect comes from concept rather than percept.

And then there is the philosophy towards which I gravitate — the phenomenologists, existentialists, and much of what's happened since. Bergson says he wants a philosophy that is absolutely at one with the particular thing, a philosophy that, in some sense, becomes that thing — or becomes with that thing. It is philosophy as drape of the world, not in the sense of covering it but in the sense of moving with the world's every move. A philosophy of agility and precision. A philosophy of infinite generosity, lending itself absolutely to the world.

Both of these visions of philosophy are quite different than an ideology or code — philosophy as mandate. That shit's just plain old strange — and, I want to say, is not philosophy. It's, well, ideology or morality. The question, then, is not: Does Nietzsche think I should do x or y? That is silly ideology. As Nietzsche says, the greatest gift a student can show him is to walk away or slay him. It is not to follow him.

When I taught MFA students, I did not teach them theory to be applied to their art. I taught them moves, possibilities, that were in the philosophy much as if I were showing them how Mondrian approached geometry or Klee the line. Theory, in this case, does not sit above the world; it does not explain the world: it is of the world, goes with the world, nudges the world and is nudged back.

After spending time at a good museum or gallery — after seeing, say, 3 or 4 works of art that rock your world — you see the world a little differently. Van Gogh makes me see the world as so much viscous: the world is thick with itself. Matthew Ritchie teaches me to understand the speed and complexity of the emergent world. A philosopher does much the same thing: after reading one, you see the world anew. And that is fucking glorious.

Philosophy is not something one lives by — that's religion, that's ideology. No, philosophy is a) something one might do (I do it! Sometimes!); and b) it is something that one goes with, one engages.


Nathan said...

Really nice thoughts here. I’ve actually been thinking about this question quite a bit lately. For years, I approached philosophy with that desire for a code or ideology, as you put it. And I wouldn’t give Kant or Hegel the time of day precisely because I thought their philosophies were so far removed from the concerns of daily life. Though my thinking during this time was always vital, passionate, even violent at times, it was rarely philosophical. I wouldn’t just go with a concept, I would run with it. And my intellectual compass was more often drawn to novelty than clarity. It wasn’t until I actually started doing philosophy that this dynamic changed. And I suggest that as a remedy for anyone who’s feeling weighed down by what they’re reading/thinking or overly zealous for a code. Because doing philosophy shows you that philosophy is something you do, not something you are or something that is in the world in some transcendent way. That's not to say that it's a simple matter of x subject (you) acting on or through y object (philosophy). But, in the schema of daily life, philosophy is an activity, not a liturgy or an instruction. Okay, now I'm just paraphrasing Coffeen. Again, nice post.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I was the same way. I came to philosophy through Derrida — and I thought everything that smacked of metaphysics had nothing for me (or, worse, earned my 19 year old contempt — ah, so humiliating in retrospect). It took me many years — grad school — to learn to enjoy concepts as art. I did part my exams on Hegel! And while Hegel is a loon, that's what I love. And Kant — oh, man, Kant is so insanely gorgeous or gorgeously insane or something. And I love that I only understand about 18% of anything he says.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I only comprehend about 5% of what you say..and I'm a better human being for it

Daniel Coffeen said...

Lack of comprehension — confusion — is underrated.

drwatson said...

I've read this a few times and have tried to find a way to respond to it in some way that doesn't just go "Yeah."

And I know I've talked about this before in some manner. But I always find a tension between the philosophy I like because it embraces the unique nature of events and the phenomenon and burden of existence and the philosophy I like that is what is called political philosophy.

Like when I read political philosophers/thinkers, the person I most like is Noam Chomsky because of a pretty rigid morality that is applied logically. When I read that sentence though, I want to cringe. "Moral," "logic" and so forth. However, I can't help but accept the very basic premise that choices have consequences and there is a reason to try to think of a collective politically.

I always have trouble articulating this because in many ways I'm not sure the gap I'm worried about is really as wide as I think it is. After all Camus and Chomsky come to similar positions.