11.16.2014

Philosophy and Life





What is philosophy? Or really the question I'm interested in is: What do we want from philosophy? Do we read it to find answers to questions? How does it stand in relation to life, whatever that is?

Most people think about philosophy as asking, and attempting to answer, big questions: What is self? What is mind? What is ethics? But these questions make all kinds of assumptions — that there even is such a thing as a self, as a mind, as ethics. I want to say these so-called philosophical questions seem disingenuous, not to mention specious, in that they leave the most interesting things off the table — that is, themselves. They sound deep and probing when, in fact, they seek to regurgitate the known. 

Deleuze and Guattari offer another definition: philosophy is the creation of concepts. That is, rather than trying to answer preordained questions, philosophy invents questions along with their concepts. In their conception, each philosophy births a different way of making sense of this life. Each philosophy is a different world that might or might not have points of intersection, zones of overlap, with other philosophies. 

I've always had two related attractions to philosophy. I like the intellectual acrobatics, the mechanics of it all, the practice of thinking through these different worlds — Kant's, Hegel's, Nietzsche's, Derrida's. Each one has an internal logic, its distinct terms of operation that might or might not turn me on. But that is irrelevant: I just like tinkering with them, like someone who loves cars. I simply enjoy seeing how they run.

But there has always been another element to my love of philosophy: the way this or that philosophy resonates with my life, with how I feel every day in every way. Which is to say, I've always wanted something from philosophy to go with me in this life, to move me, orient me, ground or unground me. It's not that I want to philosophy to answer my questions; I want it to move me, to sweep me along in its questions, its concepts, its machinations, its way of going. 

So while I enjoyed reading Kant and Hegel — tinkering with their mechanics was a pleasurable task — I've always been more drawn to those who make philosophy resonate with life — Plato, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari. For them, philosophy reckons day to day life — the living through of this life. It's not as much a matter of answering those big questions — What's the good life? — as it is: What are the ways of going that fuel and incite me? That orient me? That inflect my life in a healthy, invigorating, beautiful way? 

For these philosophers, what's at stake is not an idea or ideology but a life — their lives. In this sense, philosophy is almost moral, only without the morality. It's about leading the good life and each defines what counts as good and as life differently. 

Now, what's always irritated me about academic philosophy was that it could discuss interesting things but the stakes were always absurd — who could win or own an argument. The way of life was not only not present, it was prohibited from being part of the conversation. In fact, bringing a life lived into the equation marked you as a bad thinker, even a non-thinker. Philosophy as an academic process is woefully non self-reflexive. It doesn't like to ask of itself: Why am I doing this? It assumes the questions are self-evident. 

Osho, the Taoist Buddhist, says that philosophy is — more or less — bullshit. It talks about some interesting things but leaves itself, its life, its peace, off the table. Philosophy is so blind that it asks questions assuming there will be answers. But, for Osho, there are no questions as there are no answers. All this is is all this.  Which, for those academics out there, sounds an awful lot like Laruelle's non-philosophy, only without the pedantic crap. (Now, before you snap back in disagreement, ask yourself why. Who cares?)

Now, the minute I invoke Osho and Buddhism, the philosophers amongst you wince and turn away. What we call 'spirituality,' (I don't care for this word) has a bad rap amongst we so-called philosophers. Part of this, no doubt, is that much of it reeks of bullshit. So many people love to say and proffer profundities on the Facebook or bumber stickers when, in reality, saying it is usually a sign that you don't actually know it. Which is not necessarily a bad thing; perhaps you're reminding yourself. But it still stinks like bullshit.

But this is the same issue with what we often think of as philosophy: there is an infinite gap between speaking the truth — whatever that is — and walking the truth (which is what I'd call knowing it — and pace Morpheus). The most conservative academic I ever met — the one who most ardently upheld the patriarchal structures of the institution — is perhaps the most revered 'radical' feminist of the past forty years. Go figure. 

From a certain angle, philosophy looks so absurd, so silly, so adolescent as it nobly wrestles the big questions of existence! Or that's how it imagines itself. Watching academics deliver 'papers' and then watching as other academics attack with pedantic drivel is one of the most repulsive things I've ever witnessed — unless it's all parody in which case it's hilarious. I mean, they can't be serious, right? In what world, in what life, can such things matter?

This, alas, is the question I ask more and more of everything, a question I learned from Nietzsche: What life does these things? And so I wonder: What if there are no questions because there are no answers? What if it's all a matter of going in the world, a matter of being congruent with circumstance, of experiencing peace, love, joy, delectation? What if having an answer not only is silly, what if it's the very thing that stands between you and said peace, love, joy, delectation?

No doubt, such an inclination can lead to a certain anti-intellectualism. Which, I have to say, is not necessarily a bad thing per se. Well, I take that back as being anti anything seems like a waste of energy (as Nietzsche would say). But there is certainly an a-intellectualism to those such as Osho who suggest there are no questions as there are no answers. 

And as so much of my identity is wrapped up in my understanding of myself as an intellectual. And so, sometimes, I want to punch Osho in the face. Or just tell him to bugger off. But perhaps that's because I don't want to put myself on the line. I want to be the smart guy, preach some psychedelic cool shit, and then go on home. 

But the philosophers I dig — Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Guattari, and, yes, Osho — refuse to let themselves off the hook. Their thinking and their lives may not always have been aligned but they sought that alignment, that harmonic resonance. To me, the best thinking is the best living. It demands all of me, not just my head, my mind, my ideas, and my words but also my belly, my ass, my peace, my life. 

I am not suggesting we not think, that we not question. I'm suggesting we question more ardently, that we question the role of the question to the point of exhaustion, until the question has thoroughly enfolded the asker, enfolded us all, until the only reply is: this. 

7 comments:

dustygravel said...

Who is the most revered 'radical' feminist of the past forty years? ; )

Daniel Coffeen said...

Oh, c'mon, I have to have some discretion (a trait I usually lack). If you know where I went to school and who the professors there are, it should be rather obvious ti discern, methinks.

dustygravel said...

What! Even the Dalai Lama! I think your the first academic in history to pass up an opportunity to chastise some one by name. What is all this all even about, the edifice of the ages, if it's not a chance to waylay some hard working sucker from the ivory tower and beat them with their own words tell they can't show up to work any more. Your right that shits stupid. But to actually refrain! What would happen if every body did that? The whole thing would fall apart!!

dustygravel said...

I'm teasing you. Your point is valid.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I know you were teasing....I truly believe teasing is a higher form of communication. No joke.

ayşegül said...

Your philosophy fuels and moves and does a lot of other funny things to me.

That being said, you ruined every chance I had to be among academic people, let alone be one. And that's a wonderful thing...

Well, I should admit I never liked that way of going anyway. That's probably why I found you in the first place. Life is so cool!

P.S. This "I am not a robot" check box appearing under the text field is really weird by the way. I stared at it for a while and thought: Maybe I am one? Who knows? And it expires after some time as well. I had to state again and again that I am not a robot. That pushes me beyond my limits.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Aysegul! You're always so kind and wise at once.

On the whole academia thing, well, yeah, I screwed myself in the process, as well. But like you say, it's (probably) for the best. Who wants to write like that? Read those essays? Go to those conferences? (I've still never been to an academic conference. I don't know how people even find out about them. I was always outside the loop. My paranoia tells me that was no accident.)

What's even stranger, and funnier, about having to declare you're not a robot — although there a lot of strange, funny things such as the performative oddity of it all not to mention the polite demand for proof — proof!!! — is that you're declaring it to a robot.

Hmn.