Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Embarking Into Philosophy

Originally posted on October 19, 2012

I have a young friend who is interested and asked me about what to read. This challenged me to think of how to respond. Philosophy, after all, is a very broad game. I think the key is to be found in a phrase used by one of my favorite philosophers, Alfred North Whitehead (1865 – 1947), near the end of his book, Modes of Thought: philosophy involves “rationally coordinating mystical intuitions."

Most people build a workable philosophy of life rather unconsciously between the ages of 1 – 20 and usually keep it for the rest of their lives. A few go on to try to quite consciously trying to coordinate what they think—how does that fit with this? So, for those who really are sincere in wanting to bring some more conscious philosophy into their lives, here are some preliminary thoughts:

1. The world is changing, attitudes and basic assumptions are shifting as we go from the modern to the postmodern condition, and the good news is that you may come up with some ideas that go beyond what anyone has proposed before. Do empower yourself to dare in this fashion.

2. I’m rather sure there is no philosophy that is true for everyone in every age. It’s quite a challenge just to begin to craft, create, explore your own processes of making sense out of life. It can be done in a practical way and the ongoing test is whether it works for you. (I guess you could say I’m a pragmatist this way.)

3. You might ask, “But is it really true?” In one way it’s a good question, and in two ways, the question is misleading. It’s good because, for many things, especially in politics, various social fashions, some of what’s called “common sense,” some religion, etc., checking out relatively obvious standards of objectivity, rationality, and logic will help promote critical thinking and wisdom. A good deal of the need in our culture is for more critical thinking, and I’m dismayed by the shallowness and illusion-filled quality of much of public discourse.
   (For example, as our presidential election draws nigh, talking to people about why they prefer this or that candidate reveals that for most, so much depends on how they look, how they project themselves, stuff that is addressed by the general term “rhetoric” and “image.” So little really reflects any thinking about the issues or wondering who will be then appointed to various cabinet positions or Supreme Court Justices, etc.)

So, rational philosophy is really needed! Most folks seem to fall for oversimplified slogans, and really not even asking this question, "but is it so?" With so much rationalization—emotional bias that is supported by the unconscious capacity to come up with plausible reasons that give the person the illusion that he is thinking—most of civil life goes on foolishly.

On the other hand, there are other things that don’t (or shouldn’t be, in my opinion) managed through the processes of rational analysis.. This is the function of poetry and myth, play and sentiment. Romantic love and also generosity of spirit is not to be subject to mere reason.

It isn’t necessary to insist on critical thinking in some of these areas, especially if they’re not hurting anyone. (Admittedly, sometimes it requires a bit of conscious reasoning to judge whether conscious reasoning is needed for a given activity!) I’m pretty rational about a lot of stuff, and certain things that don’t matter to anyone else, where there is plenty of wiggle room, I get pretty trans-rational, poetic, silly, mystical, whatever works to express deeper responses. Sometimes I cry and don’t know why.

With those preliminary remarks, I want to note that the real process involves drawing out each individual as to what questions are most relevant. This is very much an individual matter! Furthermore, as Guatama Siddartha (known as the Buddha) said, don’t believe me; try it out for yourself.

I’m glad to encounter people who seem inclined to really think about life. Few do, and for those who do, some find it the most delicious fun. For me and my wife, philosophy expands our feeling of having lived by 83.2% (haha, I make up numbers like this. They are silly, because you can’t really assign quantities to most of life; and they are serious in that they do reflect a true estimate of what I’m perceiving, but in truth a very rough estimate). So good wishes on your journey.

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