I read philosophy. It is something I enjoy. It is something that makes me happy. Something that makes me uncomfortable. Occasionally it is something that makes me afraid. Always it is something that makes my question the things I think I think I know.
“Apes don’t read philosophy.”
“Yes they do Otto, they just don’t understand it.”
— Otto and Wanda: A Fish Called Wanda
The thing is I don’t always know if I’m understanding what I think I think I’m understanding. Am I reading these ideas but not getting it? Am I Otto the Ape reading the words but not understanding the ideas and concepts? Or, by questioning the fact of the nature of understanding, am I in fact actually understanding more than I know? Or am I just full of shit? Its a tough call.
I’ve never taken a class on philosophy, I’ve had no formal training. I am completely self taught. My interest in the subject came many years ago when I was a buyer at a bookstore in Colorado. A buyer, if you don’t know, is the person who decides what books get to be on the shelf. One of the sections I was put in charge of was Philosophy, a subject I was woefully unknowledged in. Oh sure I knew the big names, the heavy hitters – your Platos and your Socrates and your Descartes – but I had never read anything other than a quote or a paraphrase here and there. I was told this was not an issue.
See one of the metrics in choosing what books go on a shelf is sales. Simply look at what sells and stock more of that. Technically that is all I needed to do and no more effort was required. But I had this notion that a subject like philosophy was more than just sales numbers and quota. I thought there were certain authors and texts that should be there even if they didn’t sell because…well just because. But I didn’t know what they were and I made it a mission to find out. I researched like a crazy person.
I learned what were considered essential texts. I learned who were the cream of the crop writers and thinkers and why. I learned the different ages of philosophy, the different schools and the terms associated with it. And as a result I ended up reading a lot of philosophy. And I found I liked it.
Now as I said up till this point its not like I had never heard of any philosophical ideas or never heard of the names of philosophers. I was in my mid-20s and had actually read books so it was not as if I were completely unaware of the world of philosophy, or at least the ideas. Its just that I had never read the actual texts, and when you do that it is a challenging thing.
First of all the language. Philosophical texts are full of jargon and terms that to the uninitiated (me) can seem like gibberish and nonsense. But with just a little effort and a lot of dictionary work understanding comes naturally.
“Aristotle was not Belgian, the central message of Buddhism is not ‘every man for himself’, and the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.”
— Wanda: A Fish Called Wanda
The second is harder to quantify. Understanding. Sure you can learn the language and memorize the definitions of different terms but do you (and by you I mean me) actually get what the philosophers are saying? There are things I think I think I know and ideas I think I think I grasp but I question myself. And maybe that’s the point. And maybe I’m an idiot. Again, tough call.
But reading philosophy has changed how I perceive the world and how I view history. God, death, politics and having an extra scoop of ice cream after dinner can take on different meaning when viewed in the context of deep, introspective thought. Am I a being made in the shape of an almighty creator or am I a cosmic accident? Does sacrifice and restraint garner me a better life later in another plane of existence or is this moment the only moment and should I simply indulge and enjoy while the moment lasts? Do I see the world as it is or by seeing the world do I make it what it is? And by agreeing or disagreeing with a particular idea am I coming to terms with the reality of life or am I giving priority to a worldview that I subconsciously want to believe in the first place. In other words am I being selfless and accepting some truth greater than myself or am I selfish and only embracing that which I already want to believe?
Either way I suppose questioning how one thinks is the whole point of the endeavor, answering the Big Ideas. It depends on your philosophy.
But there is a risk to misunderstanding philosophy. I mean people got Nietzsche wrong and that led to horrors like the Third Reich, Ayn Rand and terrible high school poetry. So by me writing about and misinterpreting philosophy that could lead the tens of people who read this to cause devastation and destruction. It could happen. (spoiler: that will never happen)
Okay, in all seriousness what could, and probably will, happen is that by writing about and publishing in a public forum I will open myself to ridicule and embarrassment. This I fear is inevitable and something I must come to terms with because I am either brave or a masochist. Again, tough call.
All of this is to say I want to talk about philosophy. In a layman, unscholarly and completely amateurish way I will pick a topic or a philosopher and discuss what I understand is the gist of the idea, the crux of the biscuit. More than likely I’ll get it wrong, and if I’m lucky people will tell me why. And I do mean “lucky” because the whole point of doing philosophy is to start a discussion, to get people thinking. And if I can do that, even in a roundabout way, well that’s something worth doing.
Back in two weeks time with my fist essay in the Big Ideas: The Übermensch Fallacy or Why Neitchze Can Go fuck Himself. See you then.