This is the first column in a four-part series by Helena de Bres on academic philosophy and the meaning of life. New installments will be published weekly.
My friend Adam and I were browsing in a bookstore a few years back, when we heard a sniffling sound coming from the sales desk. We glanced over and saw a waifish eighteen-year-old staring at her phone with glistening cheeks.
“Are you okay?” Adam asked.
“No,” the bookseller said, blowing her nose. “That piece of shit. He made me a fucking playlist!”
We gingerly approached. “Your boyfriend?” one of us ventured.
“Her boyfriend,” the bookseller said. “He tells me that now, after fifteen fucking love songs!”
“That is terrible,” Adam said with feeling.
“I guess I should cut him off,” the waif said, rechecking her phone, “but we’ve been texting every day for seven weeks. Maybe he’s going to break up with her anyway.”
“Cut him off,” Adam and I said in chorus.
“Really?” She looked up at us soulfully. “Who are you guys? Do you live round here? What do you do?”
Oh jeez, I thought. Here we go.
“We’re philosophy professors,” Adam said.
“Seriously?” she gasped, discarding the phone. “Oh my god. I can’t believe this.” She darted out from behind the desk.
“You guys can tell me what to do, then. What should I do?”
I happened to be clutching a $1.99 copy of Emerson’s Self-Reliance, which I placed in her hand to gain us time.
She looked damply at me, down at the book, back up again, and sighed hugely.
“It’s not just this guy. I don’t understand what I’m doing, any of it. School, my job, my friends, my family, everything. Like what’s the point? What is even the point of, like, anything?”
“Ohhhh,” Adam said. “Don’t ask that now. Do not think about that now.”
“No, really,” she said, shifting her gaze rapid-fire between us, “tell me. I need it.” She gripped the table. “Tell me.”
It’s not always clear what the average person is after when seeking life guidance from philosophers, but it tends to be a mix of three things. First, some general orientation in the universe; second, a serving of existential consolation for when life fucks us over; and, more rarely, a dose of specific practical advice (to text back or not to text back?)
The easy reply to the last of those requests is that philosophy can supply at best only part of the answer. How someone should respond to a particular situation depends on facts about the world that we philosophers have no special expertise in—maybe the playlist dude really is in love with the bookseller?—so we can’t pronounce on the question solo.
The more socially uncomfortable reply is that the demand that philosophy be personally helpful, in any of these three ways, sounds wrongheaded to someone with the training of a mainstream contemporary philosopher. Saying that aloud involves accusing a fellow human who’s having a life crisis of being naïve, which is an asshole move I try to avoid. But I do think it, because pretty much the last thing I saw myself as acquiring while I skilled up in graduate school was transferable expertise in how to deal with everyday life, on either the grand or the intimate scale.
What I was engaged in felt more like an abstract form of science: a purely descriptive effort to understand the world and the mind. I did my Ph.D. at MIT, and as I crossed the bleakly industrial campus between classes, I felt a kinship with the teams of diligent knowledge-seekers surrounding me. Sure, there were differences, I told myself: most obviously, the experiments we philosophers did were purely conceptual. But ultimately weren’t we and the scientists engaged in the very same project: a systematic, rigorous inquiry into the underlying nature of things?
Science has practical applications, but to true devotees the applications aren’t the main point, and attempting to go straight to them is likely to backfire. Seeking direct life guidance or swift consolation from philosophy is similarly risky, for similar reasons. Bernard Williams writes in his essay “On Hating and Despising Philosophy” that, though philosophy can be pressing, it doesn’t get there “by instantly addressing the urgent and the deep.” That results in mere superficiality, intellectual kitsch. Being genuinely helpful usually requires being truthful, and because the issues philosophy addresses are complex and difficult, the search for the truth about them should start in the foothills and inch up cautiously. A truthful philosophy will be unspectacular and inaccessible to the average person as it proceeds. And if philosophy does eventually generate good life advice, there’s no guarantee it’ll deliver comfort along with it. Truth can be a bitch.
I reminded myself of this in grad school, when I felt a strange disconnection between the work I was doing and everything I really cared about in life. I spent a large amount of time in my Ph.D. program feeling deathly bored. I noticed that the other students and professors seemed to enjoy talking about philosophy in every context and at every moment, while it was becoming increasingly clear to me that I didn’t. Someone would make some throwaway, apparently non-philosophical point at a bar, someone else would lean in and say, “That’s interesting. Let’s put some pressure on that,” and I’d immediately think, “Let’s not.”
At the time, I assumed the problem was me. My interests were overly narrow, I told myself, more or less restricted to ethics and political philosophy. And that was clearly a personal flaw, since the ambient expectation was that the ideal philosopher is, at least a little, interested in every philosophical question. If philosophy is essentially an activity rather than a body of knowledge, as we’re encouraged to think, it shouldn’t matter exactly what’s being contemplated: you should enjoy philosophizing about anything.
I no longer think that’s a great inference—sex is an activity and it turns out we’re all pretty particular about who we do it with—and I also think my location of the problem was awry. My boredom didn’t really spring from the questions my professors and fellow students were thinking about, which, even in the furthest reaches of metaphysics, didn’t inherently leave me cold. Whatever was under discussion, when stated outright, often seemed intriguing, puzzling, even emotionally compelling. So why didn’t it feel that way when I was reading about it? Why, even in the case of a good paper on an obviously urgent question, did I feel something—in the question, in the author, in me—was being betrayed?
The most personally uncomfortable reply to a request for philosophical life advice, the one I’ve been drawn to lately, is that the requester is on to something. Philosophy should be able to respond to the everyday concerns of human beings in general—it should be fundamentally not boring—but a large chunk of the kind of philosophy I’ve spent my life reading, writing and teaching doesn’t seem up to that demand. The issue isn’t the use of technical maneuvers incomprehensible to outsiders, for the reasons Williams offers. And it’s not, or not always, due to the nature of the questions being asked. So what’s the problem, then? The answer isn’t obvious, but in the interest of starting us off, here’s how it feels.
I find myself in a strange state of mind these days when I sit at my desk trying to get a grip on the “literature” about a new philosophical question I have. I do my time-honored shtick: read everything I can find in the journals, make notes, and organize them into a list of competing positions backed by phalanxes of premises marching to a super-specific conclusion. Often during this process I’m semi-catatonic, but it’s worse than that. Sometimes I feel like what I’ve been doing while exercising my professional skills isn’t setting myself down the track toward answering the question I care about, but instead purging myself of everything that would get in the way of my actually doing so. I’ve made my grand sweep of all that my hyperintelligent colleagues have written on the subject over the past few decades, and somehow it’s like I haven’t even started. Now, I think, if only I knew how, now I could really begin.
Read the next installment of Helena de Bres’s column miniseries here.