Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Constructing a Philosophy of Life

Originally posted on October 7, 2010

There’s an instinct in the deep psyche to lead the mind towards a sense of meaning. In this sense, almost everyone has a philosophy of life, insofar as they assemble a satisfactory collage of platitudes, social norms, widely-accepted beliefs, and so forth that in their aggregate offer the illusion of coherence and significance. More most people, this happens unconsciously, automatically.

There is a small group of people who have not been able to do this—the experiences and lessons in life remain fragmented. Some of these people suffer from post-traumatic stress. Others want a more tightly-rationally-coordinated system and have not been able to find one; such folks—a common theme for the late adolescent “alienation” syndrome of the mid-late 20th century—suffer angst. (Some “sublimate” this feeling by writing existentially ambiguous novels or plays.)

Regarding that latter group: There are some who find that the common set of illusions that satisfy most people do not work for them: They find such beliefs are laden with cognitive dissonance, a fancy term that expresses the feeling that happens when ideas just don’t jibe. In fact, this is valid: Many traditional attitudes and beliefs, taken at face value, cannot withstand even a cursory critical analysis. Their assumptions are too fragile, have little evidence to support them; their lines of reasoning involve leaps of blind faith; their implications must be trimmed to fit the needs of the community, but otherwise are problematica. So it becomes necessary to find fresh new interpretations or new philosophies.

Of those who do want their philosophy of life to be more rational, many find that certain degrees of consistency are satisfactory. To illustrate, first, let us imagine a scale between zero and one hundred,  with zero being an experience of the cosmos as chaotic, with no meaning. 100 would then be a philosophy that is absolutely completely rationally coordinated—although, let us note, that this is in actuality an asymptotic limit, like the speed of light and the ideal of perfection. You can’t fully get there because there’s always some criticism from some other unexpected frame of reference.

Most people just assemble their beliefs unconsciously, effortlessly. But of those who do want to philosophize in the sense of consciously, intentionally fashioning a system that satisfies their sense that their beliefs are rational, it turns out they are able to succeed somewhere along the scale of, say, 20 – 80. Some remain satisfied with their conclusions, others feel dissatisfied and seek more rigorous coordinations, more evidence, more correspondences with other theories, other authorities, more personal experience.

Keeping the “Juice” In 

What occurred to me is that when professional philosophers try too hard to more completely rationalize their systems, at a certain point their writings become increasingly dense, dry, and not only unsatisfying, but almost incomprehensible to most other people. I put this on the scale at about 70-75.  If their philosophy operates at a level of 40-50, some people will find this satisfactory, but others will find it far too easy to criticize on intellectual grounds.

Another variable crops up here: Can the philosopher begin to interweave less strictly rational elements that nevertheless are experienced as being harmonious with a certain position? Poetry, parables, examples, literature, other spiritual traditions, mystical testimonies, art, diagrams, and the general activity one might call “myth-making” all fit in here.  This is the “juice” of philosophy, what makes it feel relevant to the heart as well as the mind. The problem with all these endeavors is that they operate on shaky ground when it comes to strict logic or  requirements for “hard” evidence. Still, they appeal.

There is much in philosophy that must draw on this less-than-strictly-rational foundation: The enjoyment of love, kids, the stories of development, breakthroughs, spiritual journeys, music, aesthetics of all kinds, play, and the list goes on—there’s no strictly rational support for these being what truly gives life meaning. It certainly isn’t only or even largely the attainment of measurable goals. So a really relevant philosophy has to somehow be able to include these non-rational but very important elements.

What I’m getting at is that philosophy needs to develop its rationality in the mid-level, but beyond that, it needs to take on increasing doses of mythically compelling or emotionally satisfying non-rational elements.  Philosophy has to be mellowed with good psychology, and that includes elements of non-rationality and emotionality. There are balances to be achieved here.

In our era, myth without rationality can too easily degenerate into fanaticism; rationality without myth can leave people feeling adrift—it’s just the mouthings of the intelligentsia, who are perceived as being elitist and “out of it.” We need meaning that balances the best of both realms. We also need to recognize that philosophy as an academic effort has its upward limits—and I’m not sure if anyone has said this before. Beyond about 74 on the scale of rational coordination the effort to cover all the bases squeezes out the emotional “juice” from a theory and renders it uncompelling to the majority of people.

I may be mistaken in all this, but I confess that this is the general sense with which I justify weaving in some poetry or drama with my philosophizing. I’d be interested in reasoned commentary.
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