Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Re-Thinking “Philosophy”

Originally posted on November 10, 2009

My dear wife Allee said that everyone had a philosophy of life, either implicit or explicit. I disagreed, saying that the word was appropriate only when there was some effort to rationally coordinate the different elements (to draw a phrase from Whitehead near the end of his book, Modes of Thought). I’ve come to see how we’re both right. There are two variables operating here: One is the activity of meaning-making, which children do, and everyone does. Indeed, it might be said to be archetypal, an instinct to come up with some sense of meaning to experience. It’s part of Gestalt psychology, the tendency to work out some resolution to “cognitive dissonance,” the way things sometimes don’t seem to fit.

I’ve realized that people cobble together a number of images, common beliefs, personal beliefs and ideas, unconscious motivations, biases and prejudices, platitudes, generalizations, mythic images, elements of religious doctrine, and other components so that the aggregate suffices.  It feels meaningful, it might be said to be the person’s “philosophy of life.” The degree of consciousness or rational coordination involved can vary tremendously, depending on the individual’s requirement for intellectual rigor.

(I note that meaning is a subjective experience, and this in turn is an aggregate experience, made up of many components. It becomes more or less intense, more or less positive, depending in part on the overall balance in the many inputs to that aggregate experience. Other aggregate experiences are the sense of self, of reality, of the holy or connection with God, of the quality of life or happiness, and so forth.)

Some people value intellectual coordination, rationally working out logical elements and connecting these with scientific evidence, patterns of practical utility, consonance with received wisdom or religious doctrine, and other criteria. Moderate efforts in this direction might be said to be philosophy, and even then, there are others who exert significant efforts, seek a tighter and more meticulously reasoned approach—and such people become professional philosophers. Even then, they disagree, because there are all sorts of criteria and one then must justify rationally why certain criteria are worth using.

I’ve realized, though, that most people are satisfied with what they’ve worked out. There are some other factors operating, also: In a relatively homogeneous society, almost everyone shares the same mythic-belief systems and there isn’t even a differentiation between religion and everyday life. Life is what it is, and that includes the mythic-world-view. This can occur on a relatively unconscious level, and people cannot for the most part explain why they think the way they do. It just is.

In other cultures, there are co-existing other subgroups who have different “religions” or non-religious world-views. Now there needs to be some people who argue for why one religion or world-view or set of ideas is better than others. Here we see the beginnings of philosophy or theology.

As cultures evolve and become more complex, sects and sub-groups form, so that people who believe in roughly the same religion or world-view find themselves challenged to justify their thinking by others who share a number of assumptions, but take the interpretations into a different direction. Again, this can happen within a general world-view of a religion or with philosophy that doesn’t assume the primacy of a supreme being who has revealed any set of doctrines or laws.

Nevertheless, within more complex societies, many—probably even most—people find their own sub-groups, people with whom their meaning-making process can be congenial. There’s a certain not-insignificant degree of conformity, often unconsciously conceded. Individuality is not valued to the degree that it would require that one argue politics, religion, or sex. For a few, though, there is a need for talking and arguing, debate and the writing of articles and theses and books.

Interestingly, most people find this effort to be more meticulously rational tiresome and dense. Its relevance is not apparent. Remember, most folks have worked out a meaning system that works for them.

There are some whose meaning system has failed. It becomes too simplistic, or doesn’t  jibe with certain other values or aspects of life. They feel forced to think, search, delve, to reconcile their sense of meaning with sometimes new frames of reference. Some factors generating this shift:
– one’s life script breaks down, an addiction crashes (one hits bottom), or friction with others peaks—spouses leave, employers fire, social groups ostracize, police jail.
– trauma tends to undermine deep systems of meaning and trust about oneself, others, and life.
– encounters with others from different cultures who cannot be simply discounted, the challenge to bias and prejudice and tendencies to stereotype
– related to the above, simply more education, travel, news on the television, calls for tolerance and compassion, and other factors stretch the earlier meaning systems.
– trends in religion to move away from us-versus-them thinking to inclusiveness require an opening to those who have previously been devalued—e.g., women, homosexuals, people of other races or religions.
– one becomes more aware of semantics, the way words can mean very different things to different people.
. . . and so forth.

All of this speaks to the evolution of several phenomena: (1) cultures are becoming less homogeneous and more complex; (2) there are pressures for more thinking consciously about things, as difficult as that can seem for people—and part of this involves the interesting process of denial: People don’t want to admit that they are not thinking about things. They are, but the degrees of reflectiveness can vary from shallow and casual to deep. Those who are satisfied with thinking casually find those who demand more rigor to be pedantic, ivory-tower intellectuals whose motivations are obscure. Those who are acclimatized to more rigorous rationality find those who don’t share that taste to be superficial. That it’s an aesthetic preference seems to be missed by most.

Perhaps the question to be asked (inwardly, if not explicitly) is how much do we want to think rationally and with what degree of rigor about the topic at hand. I am by no means suggesting that greater rigor is inherently more valuable. If the criteria for the goal is not agreed upon—it may be, for example, aesthetic satisfaction rather than scientific “proof”— then greater rigor can be rightly judged irrelevant, if not stuffy.

The idea of “truth” is an interesting word, almost equivalent to goodness and beauty. But the point of this mini-essay is that it’s possible to experience truth subjectively, as in “You’re the cutest sweetie in the whole world.” (Beauty or cuteness or other qualities are often in the eye-mind of the beholder.)

There are a number of aspects of life in which rigorous correlations with hard data or materialistically-based “evidence” is irrelevant, such as the enjoyment of music, dancing, singing, fooling around, and so forth. In certain kinds of silly play, flaunting such ordinary criteria is one of the sources of the fun. The truth of nonsense as enjoyable is that ordinary truth can be messed with. There are types of “what feels true for me” that have little to do with intellectual rigor. Some can even be justified with a partly-mythic and partly rational argument—the point being that there is a spectrum of intermediate forms. (For example, much Western theology is based on the acceptance of certain irrational assumptions, such as the idea that the scriptures are indeed Divinely-inspired and authoritative.)

In summary, it’s worth recognizing that philosophy on one hand can express what works for providing a sense of meaning to the individual or group as a satisfactory complex of ideas, myth, associations, and the like. The word can also hint at a gradient of intellectual rigor, reflective thinking, and demand for clarity and reason. The upper levels of this spectrum becomes academic philosophy. Interestingly, for many people, this degree of intellectual rigor is too dense for enjoyment or personal illumination.

As a critique, I’ll also add that the quest for a fully intellectually worked-out philosophy may be an asymptotic limit, requiring whole volumes of re-thinking in order to re-align what has been worked out with an unanticipated criterion or heretofore unknown facet of existence. Can there be such a thing as “too much” philosophy? I dare suggest that degrees of intellectual rigor may not signal greater value or merited status.

My own preference is for a flexible mixture of creative mythmaking, rational analysis, and other elements. Well, that’s enough for now. Email me if you have comments.

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