Putting Philosophy into Practice: The Existential Challenge

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I sometimes feel like our default position on the various figures we cover on the podcast is “well, there are some interesting ideas there, but the project as a whole is weird and misguided.” Now, I’m sure that we all don’t feel that way about every figure we cover, but per my statement of default skepticism to the clergy, there’s some truth to that in my case, at least. I’m skeptical of any and all full-on philosophical life approaches, which then includes religions and any other “isms.” Part of the way this skepticism manifests itself is in what I always call an analytic approach to philosophy, which doesn’t mean writing about set theory or embracing logical positivism or anything like that, but merely writing clearly and being bullheaded about what you don’t understand: don’t admit that a crazy-sounding philosophical notion makes sense until you can personally make sense of it.

Rand shares this latter sentiment, but is (as we discussed) insufficiently critical of her own epistemological account, which leads her in the direction of dogmatism regarding the definitions and hence philosophical theories, political and aesthetic sentiments, and her whole life approach. Note, though, that she’s a fallibilist in that she sees her definitions as based on current empirical/scientific data: she thinks “rational animal” is a sufficient (and potent!) definition for “man” but is willing to change that if we were to run across intelligent aliens that such a definition would currently include but yet which wouldn’t be humans. She sees all of her definitions, and hence all of her philosophy, as based on experience in this way, so, theoretically, any of it could change given new evidence (though one would be hard pressed to come up with, e.g. new evidence that would lead to a change in her ethics, despite the fact that she thinks that this is empirical; perhaps learning that there is life after death where Randian heroes are roasted in a lake of fire would do it).

How does she reconcile the fallibilism with the dogmatism? Partly it’s a matter of induction: we have no reason to expect certain kinds of countervailing evidence (e.g. evidence of hell) given the kinds of investigations that seem open to us and those that we’ve already done. But mostly, her reason is existential: we have only a certain amount of time to live, and this fact is sufficient to require that we, on pain of being irrational by not doing what we really want (what it is in our nature to want in Aristotle’s sense), work out our priorities right away so we’re not wasting this precious time. To do this, she thinks, we need a philosophy, and we need to go with the best one available given our current knowledge, even though this knowledge could well be disastrously incomplete or even incorrect.

Comparable existentialist logic is used to motivate a wide range of philosophies, to belief in God to facing up to the absurd to seizing the day to making your life an art. The idea is that you need to pick some philosophy and really commit to it. While I see the force of this, I must partially disagree. Yes, in action, you should seize the day: pursue your dream, go after the love of your life, don’t be satisfied doing a crappy job that is eating your life away, but none of this requires adopting a full-blown philosophy. Even if you think, for instance, that love is the answer, and long for more happiness and harmony among the populace, that doesn’t mean you need to chat up every stranger you run into and try to make a personal connection (though you should certainly do this some times if you really believe that). Even if you’re convinced that you need to get to the top of the corporate food chain and that more people, if they really evaluated their priorities, would pursue such material and ambitious goals instead of being art history majors, that doesn’t mean you actually have to be a dick about it. Ideals can be fundamentally utilitarian; they don’t have to come from some deep place of utter conviction for you to be a person of integrity.

One’s “intellectual conscience” (to use Nietzsche’s phrase) is an essential part of having integrity, and this to me means not denying intractable intellectual problems because of they’re too troublesome to bother with in our short lives. You an put them aside–life must by its nature remain only partially examined–but don’t think that you’re doing so for more than pragmatic reasons. Randian pseudo-deductions, verificationist rulings of certain problems as meaningless, and leaps of faith all constitute cheating, even if justified on the basis of their utility.

So if practical decisions about what to do (and what to encourage, and what laws to have) are supposed to be based on philosophic recognition of the character of the world and our place in it, then our life decisions necessarily rest on foundations less stable than many would like. While this shouldn’t sap one’s self-confidence, and will usually result in perfectly satisfactory results (in that the base assumptions motivating an enterprise typically won’t be revealed as a sham later on, undermining the whole thing), you can’t be so dogmatic that your choice should be accompanied by a superior sneer at those who would disagree.

Admittedly, some kinds of practical commitments lend themselves to superior dickishness more than others, but when I hear (as on the God Complex podcast) the committed and compassionate religious bemoaning the sense among their less committed brethren that the only thing that they think they have to do is “be nice,” I wonder if there really is any preferable alternative. If the sense is “because I care for your soul, I must use tough love on you and not just nod and be nice in the face of your sin,” then my attention goes to the nature of the sin involved: is it the kind of sin that people of all faiths and no faiths would likely frown on, like neglecting your kids or substance abuse, or is it the kind of sin that only someone of your flavor of belief would object to? If the latter, then more humility than righteous conviction is in order.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Comments

  1. Randall Miron

    July 8, 2013

    I share your thoughts on this matter Mark. I have always preferred to discuss things with those of a more humble bent who are yet serious about the issues. Wittgenstein said somewhere that most philosophers fail to put the question marks down deep enough.

    I’d use the word “supercilious” (which is coolly connected to “high-brow”) rather than “superior,” both at the end of the penultimate paragraph and in the final one. In the last paragraph, I’d say “dickish superciliousness,” rather than “superior dickishness.”

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    Tammy

    July 9, 2013

    Its funny but recapping on “Mark Pitches Philosophy to Clergy” (re your thoughts on clergy and Daniel’s comment), thought I’d mention Pope Francis’ first encyclical letter cites Martin Buber.

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