What is Enlightenment (A Post for the Philosophy Club)
“The courage to use your own reason,”
Kant says is the answer to “what is enlightenment.” The significance of this isn’t readily apparent, however, this simple statement has come to be quite influential in my life. I hope it does the same for you—especially as I write this.
It is strange that an institution predicated upon bringing us into mature “intellectual” life can be so antithetical to this dictum. For example, school often does not seem like an environment designed to encourage our own ideas and flourishes—but rather, a system designed to fit us into its ready made box as though our minds could be run through its halls like raw material on a conveyor belt.
This can often be a scary reality—a reality in which we are not disposed to our own reason, the truth of our own minds—but rather at the mercy of the whims of others who purport access to a “universal truth.” I don’t deny that there are certain algorithms which will make a bridge stand—and other which will make it fall… but the analytic prospect of rigor can often seen misguided on matters of the soul… for example, do we have a soul? Or, better yet—do we have consciousness? Emotions? Should we tell lies? Steal…
Let’s table this discussion to discuss the myth: that rigor and heart are mutually exclusive… or in other words, that there in fact exists a continental/analytic split. Nominally, of course there does: there are schools who teach Heidegger and there are school’s who whisper his name as though they were speaking of Voldemort. While I think this is myopic and—thus—restrictive, I don’t really care. What bothers me, however, is any program that wishes to universalize and systematize meaning in such a way that subjective matters are elevated to the status of “a fact.” It’s strange that our humanity—which is individual—can be “standardized.” Great… as long as it’s my standard.
At this point, you may be a little unsure of what I’m saying. But let me reassure you: the chances are very low that our most commonly held convictions today will not be laughed at in a few hundred years. Look guys, we laugh at Aristotle… Yet, I am all in favor of this “historicism” because without it we would probably lapse into meretricious nihilism, trying to unwind the straight line of our lives in vain. With that said, I don’t discourage this program. For all I know they’re (we’re?) on the right track. Who knows? Yet… the prospect still is very creepy.
To return to the divide for a moment—the divide between the heart and the mind—continental versus analytic—let me just say one thing: use your own reason. Anyone who thinks that Husserl’s phenomenology is less rigorous than the work of Thomas Nagel is just an asshole…. And we shouldn’t listen to assholes because they’re full of shit. It’s unfortunate that you have to meet so many assholes in a school with an exclusively analytic department—because there’s really no “necessity” in it.
The Philosophy Club is not the limited tradition of a few inspired intellectuals at USC. The Philosophy club is a vision that traces back throughout all time. There have always been those dissatisfied with their conditions of knowledge… thirsty for piercing the depths of understanding—erotic for wisdom: the philosophers. A philosophy degree, reading Kant, reading Kripke, or reading anything whatsoever doesn’t make someone a philosopher. This club, in my experience, is founded by non-philosophy majors—which is a great and exquisite irony that we shouldn’t ignore.
Really, what we are talking about—is that philosophy clubs have existed forever—in such loose settings as friends meeting to discuss their lives—to such formal settings as the Salon. This means that the spirit of the philosopher is not limited to the “tools” of philosophy. When she visits Boethius, Philosophy is a consolation. I have seen two sorority girls gossiping in ways equally philosophical to the most lauded “professional” philosophers… which should not even be surprising—it’s more clear what it means to be a sorority girl than what it means to be a professional philosopher.
What links all these good people—places—and times—is a curiosity untarnished by the reins of dogmatism, which will destroy even the purest thoughts. Dallas Willard has always been, in my opinion, the patron saint of USC. For a man “of the dogma,” he was far less dogmatic than Dennett or Dawkins. I wish him a speedy recovery right now—and I hope that your prayers are also with him. The final bastion seems to be Anthony Kammas. Seek him out—benefit yourself.
Since I suppose I am writing this for new members, I suppose I can offer some guidance so you may benefit from my experience navigating the university workplace. Here are some ideas.
Learn from Socrates—become a gadfly. Nobody respects people who just say “yes” without questioning—who live unexamined lives. This is not the same as being liked… By questioning—thorough questioning—you will probably alienate everyone except the people who you would like to be your friends in the first place. You can justify this by asking yourself: why waste time with people I don’t like? Being inquisitive is a good filter.
However, if we scale this back a bit we’ll almost always (in my experience) find that the very same questions that interest you interest you BECAUSE they are INTERESTING questions. Often times I find closet intellectuals… it really is an understated thing in our culture—we talk about closet homosexuals, closet racists, closet narcissists, etc.—but never about the closet intellectual. I feel for you… but the joke is, these people are often less alone than they think. I would always invite them to the philosophy club—a place to flaunt your intellectualism and take pride in the mind—and it’s a shame that many were in too much denial to show up.
Never be a closet intellectual. Let your intelligence shine. Just don’t be an asshole. Hopefully you’re smart enough to know the difference… and if you’re not, just look at peoples faces: when they see you do they curl up like they’ve just stepped in a cow pie? Or do they smile? Important.
Don’t wallow in abstractions… especially not in conversation with other philosophers. This point is important because without recognizing it, a closet intellectual will recede farther from the door: well (he’ll say to himself) there isn’t anything to even talk about! Shame on him…. Her… it…
Okay, so we all know the universe is mute. Life is meaningless. Everything is deterministic. Relativism is unavoidable… that Hegel won—I mean—the pragmatists won: truth is a(n unavoidable) convention…. But bear in mind, sometimes we must quit discussing Truth in order to talk about the truth. It’s easy to hide behind abstractions to avoid the consequence of our real beliefs: teacher asks a question, we rattle off a learned response. It’s all very robotic really. Chinese Room? I don’t think most people believe half the stuff they’re saying—at least, I doubt they have inquired deep enough to know either way, much less understand it.
Intellectuals are good at building walls around their truth… a necessary precaution after watching the darling sprouts of other truths mulched by the social-academic machine. These abstractions are safe—but they lead nowhere. Try it—start a conversation about ethics at the philosophy club. You’ll see this guarded intellectual language arise about what “good” and “right” and “should” mean and the meaning of “ethics” and… it will quickly devolve into a pointless argument where skepticism seems to finish us off with a final stranglehold we cannot resist. Why? It’s easy to talk about “torturing babies is fine” by dissociating the fact that you’re human from the equation… and the little (personal) fact: it’s not. Tap out early. Go limp.
Moreover, these questions aren’t even that interesting—why can’t you talk about solutions instead? For example: THESE ARE THE THINGS I FIND WRONG: how can we amend them? You may be laughed at… but understand we’re laughing with you. And if we’re not willing to come to terms with you afterwards… then we’re not interested in intellectual growth (which implies helping others grow), we’re probably just an asshole. Use your nose. Assholes are beneath you, so don’t give them notice.
Seek out professors. Audit their classes. Become friends. They are human, just like you… and if they are sincere, they are seeking just like you. Seek together, not apart. You’ll find what you’re looking for faster.
Lastly, as Nietzsche says: philosophers speak to each other from the mountain tops. They say: this is how I see it. Here’s my truth, now what is yours? Understand where your proselytizing spirit comes from… what is your need to convert others to your own ideology? Why does it matter that someone else disagrees with you?
Keep in touch and keep discussing the dharma brothers and sisters. Shalom Shanti Shanti Shanti. Peace.