In Defense of “I feel…”—Philosophy is Not Merely, “I believe…”

How do you feel? –What did I just ask you? “Feel” is like many/most words, i.e., we usually use it without thinking and its meanings are many and varied. I might ask you how you feel in regard to your physical health—the answer, “I feel good; the pain in my ankle has gone away.” I might ask how you feel in regard to life/mental health—the answer, “I feel kind of down these days; I can’t quite place it.” I might ask how you feel when facing a particular challenge—the answer, “I feel a little intimidated, but I believe I can do it.” Or I might ask how you feel about a particular idea—the answer, “I feel like that’s a good idea; I think we should do it.”

I want to focus on the last example of feeling. I remember being at the University of Georgia, working on my BA in philosophy, when I heard for the first time someone say something to the effect: “Don’t say ‘I feel…’ but rather ‘I think’ or ‘I believe.’” The context was a discussion of writing philosophy papers. So, instead of saying something like, “I feel Descartes’ dualism is problematic,” one should say, “I think/believe Descartes’ dualism is problematic.”

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Goethe and Ryōkan as Exemplars of How to Live

Writing on compassion in early Buddhism, Anālayo notes that the primary form of compassion was teaching the Dharma, i.e., the Buddhist teachings on the cessation of suffering. But as Anālayo also notes, verbal instruction is not the only way to teach: teaching, “…can also take place through teaching by example” (Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, 16). Indeed, teaching and learning by example are extremely important, and often unconscious. We don’t always realize that others, especially children, learn by our example, nor that we learn from others’ example. One important question, of course, is who do we take as our exemplars of a well lived life? For the kind of person we choose as our life-well-lived-exemplar implies a choice about the kind of life we wish to lead.

It is in this context that I wish to examine the life of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 to 1832), who was an important German poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher, and scientist. —A person much praised by Nietzsche, as we will see. And I want to compare Goethe with the Japanese Zen monk, poet, calligrapher, and recluse, Ryōkan (1758 to 1831).

There are a number of things that make these two figures particularly interesting to me. First, they are both writers and poets. Second, though they have been influential in very different ways, both their lives and works have inspired many. Third, since they are both writers and poets, they both belong to that category of being, so to speak, that Nietzsche seems to hold in the highest esteem, namely, the artist, the creator. As Nietzsche writes in his Zarathustra: Continue reading

Philosophy as Good for Nothing: A Manifesto

1. “What is philosophy?” What kind of question is that? I’ve long found it fascinating and of huge importance that, “What is philosophy?” is itself a philosophical question. This is not the same for other fields. That is, “What is science?” is not a scientific question. Perhaps if it is read as asking, “What do people called ‘scientists’ do?” it could be read as an empirical question, though that is not enough to make it scientific. I take the questions, “What is philosophy?” and “What is science?” to be asking about how we should think of them, which may or may not correspond to how anyone actually does think of them. This is not to say that there is a single correct answer to either question, though that in itself is controversial. However, if Wittgenstein’s denial of essences and his alternative picture of family resemblance has a place anywhere, I’d say it is here, with how we should conceive of philosophy (and most likely science).

As Wittgenstein realized, this could be seen as “taking the easy way out,” as it might seem to avoid the hard work of figuring out that one thing that philosophy is supposed to be. However, while I want to put forward a certain conception of philosophy—write its manifesto—without taking that to mean it is the only way philosophy should be conceived or pursued this does not mean that just anything goes. Much less that things will be easy. It is a potentially misleading analogy, but just as the possibility of a variety of legitimate interpretations of a poem does not mean that just any interpretation is of value, so with philosophy: not just anything will do.

2. There are many ways one can divide up the (meta-) philosophical terrain. A distinction that is vital for my purpose here is that between conceptions of philosophy that see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (at least in theory) and conceptions of philosophy that do not see it as something that could or should be brought to an end (theoretically or no). There are a variety of ways one might conceive of philosophy as “endable.” For example, in a well-known passage from 1931, Wittgenstein writes:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why it has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions. (Culture and Value, Tran. Winch, 16)

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Nietzsche and the Slaves of American Culture

A rough sketch, particularly one that exaggerates certain features, can be more useful than a finely proportioned, subtle, and detailed drawing. This may be the case, for example, when one wants to highlight certain features that otherwise may be missed if they are buried in detail and perfect lines. With this in mind, I want to discuss a disturbing aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy in order to foreground an even more disturbing aspect of American culture.

At one point at least, Nietzsche viewed what he considered High Culture—by which I take it he meant the cultural achievements of the likes of Beethoven, Goethe, Wagner (at one time), et al., and perhaps even the work of a Darwin—to justify the enslavement of lower types/classes. While there is the alternative of opting for universal equity, that can only occur with a sacrifice of culture. Safranski writes:

In his notes, Nietzsche sharpened the problem of the link between culture and social justice. When it comes to culture, he contended, a decision must be made as to its essential aim. The two major options are the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, on the one hand, and the success of individual lives, on the other. The moral point of view gives priority to the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, whereas the aesthetic view declares that the meaning of culture lies in the culmination of auspicious forms, the “peak of rapture.” (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, 73.)

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Scientists Misunderstanding Badly

What do science folk like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Nye have in common other than being science folk? They are like the apparent majority of people online who talk dismissively about feminism while not knowing very much about it. While I’m guessing Tyson, Hawking, and Nye know little about feminism, as well, I’m concerned here with their ignorance and confusion regarding philosophy. In what follows, I will focus on Tyson. While the online community’s ignorance of feminism is deplorable and infuriating, not to mention dangerous, Tyson’s ignorance and disparaging of philosophy has an added element of the infuriating in that he should know better. Given what I take to be his interest in further popularizing science and scientific inquiry, he is well aware of the frustration of having masses of people misunderstand his discipline, and he should realize, too, that understanding the nature of a whole field of inquiry—such as science, such as philosophy—requires a good deal of time and effort.

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You are Right and I have my Peace—On the Pursuit of Truth and a Meaningful Life

What am I after in pursuing philosophy? A ready answer is: the Truth. The truth about whatever philosophical topic I might be interested in. But this answer is problematic for a number of important reasons. One is that philosophy is extremely difficult and I’d have to be a fool or full of hubris to think that I will figure out any significant truths, truths that greater minds than my own failed to see. Another is revealed in the following passage from §5 of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, “Part One: On the Prejudices of Philosophers”: Continue reading

The Limits of Science, Philosophy, and Poetry: Opening Moves

A view of knowledge that acknowledges that the sphere of knowledge is wider than the sphere of ‘science’ seems to me to be a cultural necessity if we are to arrive at a sane and human view of ourselves or of science. (Hilary Putnam, Meaning and the Moral Sciences, 5)

There are, of course, a great many things that humans do quite naturally, e.g., acquire a mother tongue and fall in love. Just as naturally as those, there is the human need to understand the world, not just the Great Clod under our feet, but ourselves, where we are and who we are, each other and our relationships, and our relationship to the world as a whole. While we may make a distinction between understanding and knowing, the desire to understand the aforementioned things is reasonably seen as understanding through knowing. We seek to know that such and such is the case—specifically, what constitutes the world, how those “parts” relate to one another, and how we are related to those “parts.” We seek to understand via propositional knowledge.

This need to understand, to know, has been attempted through such “things” as religion, philosophy, and poetry. But perhaps the most “successful” means we have found is that of science and the scientific method. We have to be careful, however, for we need to be clear about the kind of success we are talking about. There are two main ways that science is successful, ones that are closely related, but which while still separate are easily confused or mixed together.  There is the success at discovering the truth about particular areas of inquiry, e.g., the structure of the animal cell and the atom, and there is the success of technological innovations used to solve practical problems, e.g., ways of communicating over long distance, and to provide various luxuries, e.g., air conditioning. Again, the two are obviously related, the former providing the partial means to the latter. This distinction is important to keep in mind, I believe, because its being ignored is partially responsible for the denigration of the success of philosophy and poetry as means of knowing certain truths of our world.

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