This is the final column in a four-part series by Helena de Bres on academic philosophy and the meaning of life, published weekly; read the rest here.
A few years ago I gave a lecture for a summer program in theater and performance studies. That year’s theme was migration, which I’d discussed in my work on international ethics. In his invitation, the director said: “The school is driven, mostly, by pretty activist theater-makers. I feel like we could use some philosophy.” I wasn’t completely convinced of that last bit, but it sounded fun, so I said yes.
Given the crowd, I figured I’d ditch my standard conference talk and go vaguely theatrical, weaving together the story of my own interpersonally odd U.S. citizenship interview with some highlights from recent philosophical work on immigration. I included some snappy dialogue and dramatic tension, scattered in jokes about my pre-naturalization romantic life and ended with a rousing call to action, premised on the crucial role of activist artists in achieving global justice.
I was very pleased with the result. Look at me! I thought as my audience erupted in applause. I’m barely a philosopher anymore! I’m a creative writer and these cool artsy people get me!
“Wow,” said a woman in a caftan and dreadlocks as I gathered my things at the podium. “Thank you so much. Wow.”
She looked weirdly peaced out—was she high?
“That was amazing,” a man beside her breathed. “It was so… clear. You laid everything out and I could just see it all so cleanly. The whole time. It was like white light.”
The caftan woman nodded. “I feel so calm right now. I’m just floating, way up here.”
“Yes!” the man agreed. He touched her arm empathetically. “It was so pure.”
This was the chorus as I fought my way confusedly down the aisle. I had delivered an aesthetic experience, it seemed, but not at all in the way I’d hoped. My audience had responded not to the content or surface form of my talk, but to its underlying mode and the general approach to life that it implied. I had supplied, despite myself, an existential balm.
We contemporary philosophers like to claim we’ve outgrown the demand that philosophy provide the more general sorts of guidance about how to live in, feel about and cope with the world that our existentialist and ancient counterparts went in for. But that stance increasingly seems disingenuous to me. Though we tend to prefer the science to the worldview model of philosophy, the science model incorporates a worldview of sorts. It is, broadly speaking, the Enlightenment one: the idea that the world, however complex, is ultimately a comprehensible place, that its appearances conceal an underlying order that careful, rational analysis can progressively reveal.
Looking back now, I think it was largely this aspect of philosophy that hooked me into the major, then grad school, then my current job. The philosophers I came across in college were experts at reducing what had seemed like impossibly large and ineffable questions into small, manageable parts. They were orderly, self-assured, in absolutely no rush, and appeared to be in full and constant command of themselves and their material. The result for their audience, on the better occasions, was a sense that a complicated portion of the universe had been pared back, tidied up and put, for the moment, to rest.
You get some intellectual satisfaction out of approaching life this way: a Lego-style kick out of seeing how the parts of things do or might fit together. But you also get two other things, which are shared, in a general way, with the existentialists and the ancients. One is a kind of ethic. The traits people admire in scientists are the same I admired in the philosophers I encountered as an undergrad: their curiosity, seriousness, conscientiousness and restraint. Ideally, there was a form of selflessness at work, an avoidance of flashiness, an honest commitment to unearthing the truth. And, underlying it all, a bracing sense of daring: nothing was to be taken on authority; everything, including one’s own prejudices, was to be exposed to scrutiny and, if need be, retracted, whatever the cost. In both science and philosophy, the everyday business is mainly tedious and nerdy. But let your spectacles fog a little and it takes on a noble, even sexy, aspect. Philosophy, Bertrand Russell wrote, is “cold steel in the hand of passion.” Easy, tiger!
More surreptitiously, the vision of the world and of philosophy implicit in the analytic tradition is a source of emotional support. Part of this is a direct, content-free result of the method. Taking something apart very slowly can have an ASMR effect on you or your audience, like watching Bob Ross painting, except with logic.
More substantively, there’s something reassuring in the Enlightenment-style thought that, however ultimately doomed we all are, we can make incremental progress, here and now, by cooperatively applying reason to well-defined problems we don’t have to get out of our chairs to answer. There are many areas of philosophy I know nothing about, but, thanks to my training, I know how to locate the resources I’d need to learn about them, and I’m confident I’ll be able to understand most of what I find. My intellectual world is peopled by a community of whip-smart searching minds whose methodological assumptions I generally share and whose judgment I respect even when we disagree. What do other people do without this, I sometimes marvel—are they not fully adrift? When they walk down the street, why is everything not blur and lightning? How, when brushing their teeth each morning, do they not slip mentally off the planet?
That’s small-minded of me, of course. Philosophy isn’t the only way to secure grounding and direction in life: religion, art and personal relationships can do the job too, and maybe better. My point is that analytic philosophy, even at its most technical, is one way of tackling those fundamental tasks, and as such serves the same emotional needs that non-philosophers reveal to us during our classes, at parties and in hair salons, planes and Ubers.
We analytic philosophers pick up our worldview by osmosis in college and graduate school: it silently substitutes for the existentialist, spiritual or pop-psych alternatives we scorn. We don’t necessarily realize we have it, so, though our reputation is for thoroughgoing questioning of our basic assumptions, we don’t tend to approach it in the skeptical spirit we should.
Part of what makes any worldview a worldview is that it’s selective: an interpretation, a take. It has to leave stuff out, so what remains can be salient and interesting. What does the analytic worldview leave out? The Romantic line is that we analytics overvalue reason at the expense of feeling, that we “murder to dissect.” The twentieth-century line is that our insistence on objectivity, generality and abstraction sidelines particularity and subjectivity, and that our obsession with linear argument is just a defense mechanism against the chaos of the universe and the unconscious.
Whether or not that’s so, the analytic worldview does have one advantage, of sorts, over the more fully “out” existentialist or ancient alternatives. Unlike those, you don’t have to look straight at it and see its inadequacy, or admit the inadequacy in you that makes you need it. The hidden nature of the balm it offers is part of the consolation: it’s like a therapist you don’t have to admit you’re seeing.
Sometimes when I was driving to or from work in the early years of my job as an assistant professor, the Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine” would come on the radio. The singer is looking for “an answer to these questions,” goes to see a “doctor of philosophy” to get it, and finds he’s of no use to her at all. I used to grip my steering wheel in irritation when listening to that verse.
“He never said he’d answer your fucking questions!” I’d sometimes bark aloud, veering a little into the neighboring lane.
Maybe he did, I’d then think. He’s probably a continental philosopher: there’s a poster of Rasputin on his wall. One annoying thing about my vocation is that you can’t get angry without assessing your own premises as you go.
“But, in any case!” I’d rev back up. “My larger point stands!”
What was true was that I’d never said I’d answer my students’ fucking questions, or at least the more “existential” ones they raised with frustration or anguish in the middle of my classes or in office hours. My job was to teach them to carefully assess a precisely specified argument on a narrow topic for validity and soundness, not to help them sleep at night.
I now think my road rage was founded on two mistakes. Addressing large-scale questions about how to deal with life is part of what philosophy is for. And I’ve been answering those questions, for my students and myself, by stealth all along. What do you do when you finally admit that you’re in therapy, but that the particular therapist you’re seeing may not be the best fit? Do you open up your relationship to other aims and methods—become philosophically nonmonogamous? Or do you accept the intellectual partner you’ve chosen as inescapable at this stage and renew your vows, only with a little more self-awareness this time? I don’t know, but I guess I’m going to find out.