Nature’s Clocks

Millenium Clock, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

Millennium Clock, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

I see lines and dots. My face and body are sprinkled with freckles and bumps and moles and little spots, red and brown, with new ones popping up all the time. I see scattered patches of rough skin where innumerable sunburns killed its ability to heal itself gracefully. The surface of my face and body is not so smooth as it once was, with lines and little ripples appearing unexpectedly and with increasing regularity. My lips are a little less full than they were before, and there’s thickening around my face and body in different places than where the baby fat used to be, and of a different texture.

There’s a country song I love with a line that goes ‘I look in the mirror in total surprise, at the hair on my shoulders, the age in my eyes’. This doesn’t all apply to me. I keep my hair bobbed and it looks much the same as it always has: it’s still brown, and if there’s any silver, it’s in fine threads hidden among the darker ones, and doesn’t show. My eyes are still wide and wonder right back at me when I look at myself in the mirror, though there’s much more crinkliness around them than before. When I first noticed the signs of aging that have appeared so far, I was startled, disconcerted, and upset. I’m not nearly as immune to vanity as I’d like. But now, the process has become a familiar one and while not exactly welcome, I’m reconciled to it, at least for the moment. Though some would still call me young, I’m clearly, fully a woman, though there’s much more than a bit of girlishness left in my personality. I still have lots of energy and have the great fortune to enjoy good health, for which I’m very grateful.

Like a clock, these bodily lines and dots are accompanied by a tick-tock, tick-tock. For some, the lateness of the hour they reveal tells them it’s time to get married or have a first baby if they haven’t yet, or it’s time to make their first appointment with an aesthetician or cosmetic dermatologist. For others, like me, they say ‘It’s time to pursue those dreams yet unrealized, get cracking on those projects, accomplish more, go out and see more of that great big world, girl-no-longer-a-girl! Hurry up!’

Okay, okay! I’m up, I’m up! Time to get a move on.

Thanks, lines and dots. You really do come in handy sometimes, by driving me to do so many things and go so many places I’ll always be glad of. But do you really have to be so unrelenting?

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Thank You, Khan Academy!

GRE study materials, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsI’m hard at work these days studying for the general GRE and have found that maths, other than practical arithmetic, have a way of slipping away from memory with utter thoroughness if they haven’t been practiced in awhile. And as is often the case, my restless habit of constantly piling new projects on top of others I’m already working on led me to start studying in earnest far too last-minute.

The Princeton Review GRE books are pretty helpful (found in the reference section of any good library), but they seem to me to focus more on ways to game the test than they do re-instilling a thorough understanding of the mathematical processes and ideas behind the questions. This may work well for many people, but it was leaving me feeling lost and confused at times since there are so many kinds of gaming techniques that it’s hard to remember them all, especially if you don’t feel you have a good grasp of the kind of problem you’re solving to begin with. I expect this is the same for many of you as well: my memory won’t hold onto a fact or idea unless it fits into some larger idea or system. If I don’t understand the why, I just can’t seem to remember the what.

So I was feeling pretty stressed out by the feeling of working very hard but gaining too little, and decided I needed to back up and get a good solid grasp of the basic concepts again. The company that creates and administers the GRE has a list of Khan Academy lessons and practice sessions that pertain to the test posted on their website. They are so well designed, so well-explained, and they’re free, hooray! I feel so much better now about the progress I’m making, and re-discovering the fun of basic and intermediate algebra. Once I had gotten the hang of it, it had always seemed more like games than work to me!

So thank you from the bottom of my heart, Sal Khan and the good people at Khan Academy, you are the best. And yes, I will donate to your Indigogo campaign to fund courses on American government.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

An Excellent Sentiment from John Dewey, Found on a Library Wall

John Dewey quote inscribed on the Rundel Building of the Rochester Public Library, New York, photo 2016 by Amy Cools.jpg

‘Education is more than preparation for life, it is life itself.’ A rewording of a John Dewey quote inscribed on the Rundel Building of the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County, New York. The original quote reads: ‘Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make it the full meaning of the present life.’ From “Self-Realization as the Moral Ideal” (Early Works 4:50)

Sources: Center for Dewey Studies: FAQ at Southern Illinois University and ‘Rundel Memorial Library Building‘ at RocWiki

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Let Us Perish Resisting, by L.D. Burnett

Jefferson's Book Collection at the Library of Congress (cropped), photo 2016 by Amy CoolsA few years after I graduated from college, when I was short on cash, short on space, and short on hope that some significant portion of my days might ever again be spent in reading and writing and thinking about something beyond my immediate material circumstances and familial duties, I made a decision that I have wished many times to take back: I sold almost all of my textbooks. Not just the overpriced and (for me, anyhow) under-studied behemoth from Intro to Econ, nor my well-used but no longer useful grammar and exercise book from French I and II – those weren’t the only texts I culled from my little library.

I gathered up Robert Lowell and Alice Walker, Edmund Spenser and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretius and Virginia Woolf, Lorraine Hansberry and Aristotle, Montaigne and Nietzsche, Flaubert, Boethius and Baudelaire, and many others besides – most of them authors I had never so much as heard of before I set foot on the Stanford campus. Norton critical editions, and anthologies of fiction and poetry, Penguin Classics, and mass market paperbacks I had acquired for classes — when I had been compelled to choose between buying my books and, say, eating more than one meal a day for a few weeks, I chose the books. I don’t regret those purchases.

Still, I wish I hadn’t sold them. Because what I let go of when I let go of those books was not just a visible reminder of lean years and tough choices. I also let go of my own history as a reader, as a learner – all the notes and exclamations and questions I had scrawled in the margins, the asterisks, the dog-ears, the passages underlined two or three times because they rang true to my young heart or my old soul.

But I didn’t sell all my books. Among the texts I kept were Augustine and Shakespeare, Dickens and Faulkner, Spoon River, Thomas Wyatt, Jane Austen and George Eliot and Thackeray so deft and droll, Dante and Cervantes and a few other stragglers besides, including Miguel de Unamuno.

Before I was an English major, I was a Spanish major, and I had been introduced to Unamuno in the second half of the Spanish lit survey at the end of my freshman year. Alas, the two volume anthology we used in the survey, with its excerpt from Unamuno’s beautiful Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho, was among the books I sold. But the standalone volume of Del sentimentio trágico de la vida – that I kept.

Unamuno’s existential anguish and his quest to find or fashion some hope in the face of the miserable fact of our mortality struck a chord with me. I might not have understood everything he was arguing — or arguing against– on my first read through, but I understood that.

In the face of certain disaster, what do we do?

That question, that problem, has been much on my mind lately, particularly as it relates to the state of higher education, the fate and future of the university as an institution or even as an idea.

What do we do?

Does it even matter?

Thinking of those questions, I was reminded this morning of a passage in Unamuno where he quotes Sénancour – somewhat disapprovingly, as it turns out, a fact lost on me the first time I read the chapter. Here is the quote, and my best attempt at a translation of it:

L’homme est périssable. Il se peut; mais, périssons en resistant, et, si le neant nous est réservé, ne faisons pas que ce soit une justice.

Man is perishable. That may be. But let us perish resisting, and, if Nonexistence is what awaits us, let us not act in a way that would make our fate seem just.

Unamuno, as it turns out, rejected Sénancour’s willingness to allow that “le neant” was our collective end. He would not surrender to nihilism. Still, Unamuno’s ensuing development of his own argument for faith – faith not instead of doubt but rooted in doubt and flowing from doubt — was a means of doing precisely what Sénancour urged, without conceding the rationale for it. Instead, Unamuno inverted that rationale, saying in effect, Let us resist despair together, and so perish not.

I sold my old books in a time of great financial distress and profound personal despair (the two were connected, as they often are). The paltry sum I received for them just exacerbated my sense of sorrow and loss. But at the time I didn’t know what else to do. I did know, however, that no matter how much of my little library I felt that I had to give up, there remained a portion that under no circumstance would I willingly surrender.

Somehow I knew that if I had let those last few books go, I would have gone right with them.

Let us resist perishing. But if we must perish, let us perish resisting. That’s not an ethos they teach in Intro to Econ, not even at Stanford – perhaps especially not there, fons et origo of Silicon Valley. Economic arguments for the value of a humanistic education will not save the humanities, and we should stop making them. The value of what we study, of what we teach and what we learn, is that such learning can help keep the human spirit alive. That may be the surest ground upon which we can stand. If that ground at the very heart of the university is lost, whatever still remains will hardly be worth keeping, whether or not we ourselves are by some miracle still standing.

L.D. Burnett received her PhD in Humanities/History of Ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas in Fall 2015. She has a B.A. in English from Stanford University. Her book, Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education, is under contract with University of North Carolina Press.

This entry was originally posted in .USIH Blog, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Bio credit .USIH Blog

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Breaking the Wall: Why Facing Depression is a Personal Choice, by James Spencer

Black doberman in the mist (cropped), photo credit patstatic, Creative Commons CC0 Public DomainDepression remains the last serious taboo in the West.

Some think it’s an illness, some think it’s less than it actually is and others deny its existence. Society is so keen to show that it is understanding of a medical condition, so keen to throw pills at it and to provide sufferers with legislative protection that it’s forgotten that depression is a very personal battle.

There remains a social undercurrent that refuses to see depression as more or less than a series of personal shortcomings or artistic affectations. Depression is a private question about how to handle the darkness when it pays you a visit. No amount of public discourse or sympathy will ever change that basic fact. It makes no difference what other people think, which is a simultaneously lonely and reassuring fact.

Happiness is contingent on being brave. It’s about conscientiously choosing to see the darkness as an illness and a series of landmines which can be contoured and identified. It’s about seeing patterns, and triggers and removing those things from your life that trigger episodes. It’s a brutal choice, a night of the long knives that has self-preservation at its heart.

Debates about whether or not depression is environmental or genetic hold no water for those who have and endure depression. The key to understanding the illness is to first recognise you have it. Treatment first begins with understanding what you have because like any illness, it can be triggered or the likelihood of getting it increases with certain decisions and behaviours.

Pills and antidepressants are not the first stop. Winston Churchill and Lord Byron are widely noted for their industrious creativity and are also the most oft-cited  men who dealt with what Churchill dubbed his ‘black dog’. Both offer insight into how someone with depression views the world.

Churchill’s melancholia is often remembered as a side effect of his greatness, but whether or not his greatness would have existed without his ‘black dog’ is another matter. Such is his legendary association with the illness that the book Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt, imagined it as a literal walking, talking black dog that whispered convincing lies and downers that only Churchill could see and hear. For the  poetic licence of the book, it was an apt analogy for how Churchill explained his condition:

“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”

If there is any positive in this whatsoever, Churchill’s misery allowed him to accomplish wonders because he was driven by an impossible drive to never fall into his own thoughts for worse he fell onto the train tracks.

Byron likewise suffered from depression, but with all the charm of a dead poet. His life was much the model and source for his creation of the romantic hero, sullen and brooding. The Byronic hero made an appearance in much of Byron’s work, but he best articulated the traits in his description of Conrad, the pirate hero of his The Corsair (1814):

That man of loneliness and mystery,
Scarce seen to smile, and seldom heard to sigh— (I, VIII)

He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d
The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;
And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid
Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.
He knew himself detested, but he knew
The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.
Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt
From all affection and from all contempt: (I, XI)

For all Churchill’s creatively, ego and verboseness he never embellished his illness with more than a moniker. Byron’s darkness was less so because his principal disposition was toward a spiritual melancholy that translated itself into a pantheon of literature. Churchill’s creative outlet was driving himself onward with activity and never, ever giving up.

What unites both men is that they made themselves more than the sum of the parts that encouraged their darkness. They utilised it as a goading reminder that prodigiousness was the only way to get over the part of themselves that whispered the worst and encouraged them to stop.

And this is the key: people with depression seldom know they have it. The voices in their head whispering negative things have the same normal voice of yourself but it’s been hijacked by a critical downer trying to guide the ship onto the rocks. The only way beyond this is to carry on, no matter the cost or the time involved because the darkness does eventually give way. Going on, and on, and on and never being cruel or cowardly is the only way to ensure that when you feel better destruction isn’t what remains.

Depression is like a violent blackout, you can wreck relationships or yourself during it but eventually you sober up to see what has been left behind. It’s a narrative of how you see your own story. When it becomes clouded then you have a problem because you lose an innate ability for self-assessment. It’s precisely why alcohol is both a depressive and an extremely dangerous consumption for someone who is in the throes of an episode.

Like Byron or Churchill, if there’s a heroic quality it comes from within. If a voice guided you in, you need to hold onto something to remind you to keep going through it. No one can help you except yourself. You have to hold on. Dizzying highs and devastating lows can make for a creative output of genius for some, but for most holding on means getting through a storm in such a way that when the lights do go back on, you see the world anew.

There’s a wonderful episode of Doctor Who where the eponymous hero is stuck in a maze of a castle that keeps resetting over, and over and over again. Each time he dies, he comes back; he runs the rat race again with no memory of the last time before being confronted with the truth that all the millions of skulls around him are versions of himself who lived and died.

All each version can do, before he dies and resets, is to hit an implacable wall a hundred metres thick of pure diamond. Every version makes a tiny dent before the cycle repeats.

Over and over and over again, for four billion years, each version makes a chink that eventually breaks the wall.

Depression is much the same. Whatever is being said, whatever is happening around you, stop for nothing, put the mind on autopilot and keep going because depression takes control of the head first, but it can never conquer the heart.

As someone once said ‘if you’re going through Hell, keep going’.

James Spencer attended the University of Edinburgh and graduated with a 2.1 in Politics. His interests include human rights, constitutional politics and cultural commentary. (Bio credit: Darrow)

~ This article was originally published on Darrow. Read the original article.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)

Let'er buck, 1921 by Charles Wellington Furlong, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

‘…He was an old philosopher, of course!’

This song never fails to make me smile. Thanks for the song, Tom T. Hall!

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief, by Eric Schwitzgebel

A Trail in Redwood Park, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsAs you may have noticed, I often recommend pieces by Eric Schwitzgebel; of course, that’s because his work is fantastic, and I’m always looking forward to his new posts.

This one’s about understanding why and how we believe, and especially, what our behavior reveals about the true nature of our beliefs. Schwitzgebel offers a succinct and to my mind, convincing criticism of the idea that we have certain beliefs but just often fail to live up to them. Instead, he places the emphasis on observing behavior as a more reliable and accurate indicator of what we in fact do believe.

This is a sobering thought, since it means that the way we like to comfort ourselves when we don’t behave as we think we should isn’t really valid: ‘I meant well! And I’ll do better next time because I really believe in….’ This kind of excuse it always readily available to us in the intellectualist model of belief as Schwitzgebel describes it, but really, what’s the practical use of saying we believe something something then if we consistently give ourselves this kind of ‘out’?  In this way, it’s closely related to the Socratic argument that there’s no such thing as weakness of will, since if we actually believe something, it makes no sense to think we actually could act otherwise. And it seems to me to go beyond pragmatism: if belief and behavior are considered separately, the former seems to lose a good deal of meaning, seeming a disembodied, impersonal thing that doesn’t seem so much to describe the actual world, or an actual person so much as something very abstract, very removed.

But it’s also an encouraging thought. For one, it helps us be more honest about who we really are and why we do what we do; as Schwitzgebel points out, this understanding of belief makes us more responsible for not only our reactions but our beliefs, and therefore gives us more control over them. Which ties into: this view of belief fits in neatly with the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach to self improvement. Perhaps our intellect tells to us that there’s a better way to behave, or that there’s a proposition we should accept since upon consideration, it appears to be the truth, but the way we act so far doesn’t accord with this intellectual discovery. How to resolve this uncomfortable cognitive dissonance? Why, change our behavior! Not only will it change our habits over time, it helps turn our intellectual considerations into conviction, or part of our mental makeup as not only thinking, but believing beings.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

Schwitzgebel, Eric. ‘Some Pragmatic Considerations Against Intellectualism about Belief, The Splintered Mind blog, April 07, 2016.

Stroud, Sarah, “Weakness of Will“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition) Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Junkyard Idealism

Greater Adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) on a garbage dump in Guwahati, Assam in March 2007, by Yathin sk, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsIn a letter to a friend recently, I was reminiscing about my years working in a salvage and recycling yard. It was founded by an idealistic and action-oriented sociologist right near the edge of the local dump’s garbage pit, now grown to a fairly large operation that employs about forty people. I loved and miss the work: it was dirty, physically demanding, creative, and full of the thrill of treasure hunting, as founder Dan Knapp, my fellow salvagers, and I made all manner of discarded things available for use again. We diverted truckloads upon truckloads of things from the landfill every day, and dug among boxes and bags of trash and pulled out everything recyclable or reusable we could find. We rescued all manner of interesting artifacts; one box of ephemera we sold made it into an episode of PBS’s History Detectives. Being a lover of history, I was thrilled at the discovery and wondered how many other interesting and significant relics we snatched from the dump’s gaping mouth.

I wore steel toed boots and thick battered work gloves and grimy jeans, and scrubbed the filth off old household goods, lifted stoves and tables and dressers and machinery and rugs and other heavy things (I grew very strong there, and learned how to maximize the available leverage in my body), and delicately repaired jewelry, pottery, art, and so on. One of my favorite photos anyone’s ever taken of me illustrates an East Bay Express article from several years ago, where you will find me sitting on one of a row of recycled toilets. We helped young artists and first-time homeowners and collectors and independent businesspeople and seekers of antiquities find interesting and useful things; we also bargained, negotiated, and wrangled with hustlers, hoarders, slumlords, and thieves. While the work was hard and pretty nasty sometimes, it could also be great fun and deeply satisfying, and the comradery we shared was delightful, sometimes intense. Many lasting friendships emerged from this place, including my marriage.

Amy Cools works at Urban Ore, where you can find all manner of household goods, by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

Amy Cools works at Urban Ore, where you can find all manner of household goods, by Stephen Loewinsohn for the East Bay Express

My reminiscing was triggered by a podcast discussion I’d just heard about Thomas Jefferson’s disappointed idealism when so many of his fellow Americans flouted the Embargo Acts of his administration. Jefferson wanted to avoid getting drawn in to the war between Britain and France happening at the time, and to protest the unfair treatment of the newly formed United States as a free and equal trading partner. He also wanted to demonstrate to the world ‘that there are peaceful alternatives to war’, such as withdrawing from trade in protest. Unfortunately, the public would not put up with the resulting deprivation of luxuries and money-making opportunities resulting from the general embargo, and it failed.

The embargo episode discussion reminded me of the idealism of the salvage yard, of its founder and those of us that believed that the work (and some still do!) was mostly about doing our bit to counteract the wasteful and polluting consumer habits of our American culture. We hoped and believed, like Jefferson, that the capacity of ordinary citizens to do the right thing would come through, and we could curb and redirect our acquisitory habits if necessary. Yet, like Jefferson, many of us found ourselves disappointed at the way our fellow citizens would fail to live up to our idealism. Even in the Bay Area, known for its ‘green’ culture, our community still manages to consume so voraciously and produce so much trash, that our operation could hardly seem to make a dent in it, though we recycled, literally, tons of stuff every day. When our team in place at the dump would salvage from the trash pile about to be bulldozed into the pit, we’d find enormous quantities of recyclable and salvageable things thrown carelessly into the garbage, even though there’s a comprehensive local infrastructure for salvage and recycling. Everywhere in this country, even here in this liberal bubble, we still seem to be contributing far too much towards rendering the earth and its atmosphere more inhospitable to life as we know it, because we just can’t seem to find a way to help ourselves.

Now, of course, there’s no way around the fact that waste is one of the byproducts of living, especially for long-lived, intelligent, creative creatures like human beings. And some of the waste seems acceptable: clothes worn out and outgrown; machines which no longer work but contain usable parts; recyclable packaging like glass bottles and tin cans; worn-out books, textiles, and parts; obsolete technology; and so on. But lots of the waste appears just gratuitous: gimmicky toys and games; faddy decor; cheap, poorly constructed clothing and other stuff manufactured for short-term use; trinkets and impulse buy gifts that few like to keep but many buy out of a sense of social obligation or an addiction to shopping; and so on. To this day, when I walk into a department or gift shop I perceive mostly thinly disguised, soon-to-be trash.

We really did believe, as again so many of us still do, that this salvage work has significance, that it’s a part of a general movement, slow-moving as it may be, towards a greener, less wasteful, more environmentally caring way of living in the world. The mission and the work both fit in with and raise local consciousness, and lots of people bring their discards to salvage from, glad to see that much of it would not become trash after all. And the business continues to be a well-known and beloved local institution, warts and all.

I still hope, with my old friends and former colleagues, that the people of the United States and of the world will make more than symbolic changes to better protect our world from the ravages of our mining, agriculture, production, and consumption, and live up to our idealism a little better than the American people of Jefferson’s day. Those disposable grocery bags do little to help if we’re still buying and throwing away at such high rates, cheap clothing, discarded water bottles when clean water is flowing from our taps, boxes from nightly takeout, overly-packaged goods, most kinds of plastics, and generally more stuff than we need. Many are more optimistic than I am about how far we’ve come and where we’re going when it comes to waste, pollution, and the capabilities and effectiveness of modern recycling programs. My husband points out that the efficiency of the Oakland transfer station, which uses well-calibrated equipment to effectively separate out recyclables from trash, and the advanced capabilities of carpet recyclers, who have taken out the guesswork of sorting by compatible fiber content with sensors which can detect it, demonstrate real social progress at least when it comes to waste. And one of my great friends is a techie who closely follows technology news, those just coming out, in development, and still in the working-theory stage. If he’s right, new technologies will resolve most or all of our pollution problems, of both production and disposal, in the relatively near future, so long as we manage to fund, make, and use them before we’ve pushed our human-nurturing environment over the brink of collapse.

I really hope my husband and my tech friend are right. Perhaps we won’t ultimately solve the problem through economic self-control, just as in the days of the embargo. Perhaps technology is the only workable solution. But until we’ve invented our way out of the mess we’re making of the world, we need to keep putting our junkyard idealism to work.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and inspiration:

Jenkinson, Clay. ‘Crockett Middle School‘, episode 1169  of the Thomas Jefferson Hour, Feb 21, 2016.

‘Urban Ore: About Us’ business website page

Related Ordinary Philosophy pieces:

Activism is Not Enough: As Long As We Keep Shopping and Don’t Vote, It’s Our Fault Too! Dec 13, 2014 by Amy Cools

Logos‘, Jul 27, 2015 by Amy Cools

What Ordinary Philosophy’s All About: Clarifying the Vision

People in a Public Square, Image Creative Commons via PixabayIt’s been an especially busy few weeks for me: studying, researching, writing, planning for my upcoming traveling philosophy journey and for the expanded future of Ordinary Philosophy. This year so far, I’ve had the great good fortune to meet some inspiring new people: passionate, thinking, active, and creative. I’ve also gotten to know others better as well, and am opening new doors and making new contacts every day. Our conversations have been inspiring me to think more clearly and deeply about my vision for Ordinary Philosophy, about my hopes, dreams, and goals, and about the wonderful people who will work with me to accomplish them in the future.

So I’ve just been looking over my introductory statement about Ordinary Philosophy, and thought it needed some clarifying and expanding. Here’s my vision as it stands now, best as I can describe it, and it’s beautiful to me. I hope it is to you too!


Ordinary Philosophy is founded on the belief that philosophy is an eminently useful endeavor as well as a fascinating and beautiful one, and that citizen philosophers and academic philosophers alike share in making it so.

So why the name Ordinary Philosophy?

The ‘Ordinary’ in Ordinary Philosophy means: Philosophy is not only pursued behind the walls of academia.

It’s an ordinary activity, something we can do regularly whatever our education, background, or profession, from our homes, workplaces, studies, public spaces, and universities. It’s applicable to ordinary life, since it’s about solving the problems we all encounter in the quest to pursue a good, happy, and meaningful one.

It’s about seeking answers to the ‘big questions’ we ask ourselves all the time: ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ ‘What’s a meaningful life, and how can I make mine so?’ ‘What’s the truth of the matter, what does truth mean anyway, and how do I know when I’ve found it?’ ‘What does it mean to have rights?’ ‘How did reality come to be as it is?’, and so on.

It’s also just as much about the ordinary, day-to-day questions: ‘Should I take this job, and will it help fulfill my highest aspirations?’ ‘It is wrong to put my interests first this time, even if it will harm someone else?’ ‘What’s the difference between just talking about other people and malicious gossip?’ ‘Why should I go out of my way to vote?’

And in the end, it’s about living philosophy, about philosophy in the public square, and the stories and histories of philosophy as it is realized, personified, lived out by activists, artists, scholars, educators, communicators, leaders, engaged citizens, and everyone else who loves what’s just, what’s beautiful, and what’s true.

All of this is philosophy.

~ Amy Cools, founder and editor of Ordinary Philosophy

Why We Need Citizen Philosophers

Writing a letter *oil on panel *39 x 29.5 cm *signed b.c.: GTB *ca. 1655I am a citizen philosopher, and very likely, so are you.

So what is citizen philosophy, why is it a useful concept, and what is its role in the world?

Let’s begin by considering what we mean by philosophy, generally speaking. For a long time, philosophy has been considered an almost exclusively academic pursuit, so highly specialized that only a very few experts can properly be called philosophers. As Eric Schwitzgebel points out, this is a relatively new development. In the Western world, it traces its origins to classical Greece; each region of the world has its own history of philosophy or its analogue, from Egypt to China to the Americas. As with all fields of inquiry, philosophy has branched out and specialized until much of it would be barely comprehensible to its first practitioners. Indeed, almost all fields of inquiry we know today started out as a branch of philosophy: mathematics, logic, science, medicine, theology, you name it.

But Philosophy, or ‘love of wisdom’, began in the home, the workplace, the market square, and the street corner with curious, intelligent people who, newly enjoying the luxury of free time accorded by advances in food-acquisition technologies, began to ponder on the whys and hows of the natural world and of the human experience. These people weren’t originally chosen or designated by some authority as the ‘thinkers’ as opposed to everyone else, the ‘doers’; instead, philosophy originated, grew, and specialized organically. We, as a species, began to ask and answer ever more complex questions about how to best live in the world as members of societies, what’s going on within our own minds and why, what are our roles in the universe, and what it all means… including the question ‘what is meaning?’. Over time, certain individuals came to be recognized as particularly adept at asking and answering these important questions, and came to be considered specialists and authorities in their fields of inquiry. But philosophy, broadly construed, remained a pursuit of many more people than that.Panthéon, Temple of Reason, Paris, France, Photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Philosophy has been demystified by re-entering popular culture, to a significant extent. There’s an ever-growing audience for popular philosophy books, articles, magazines, podcasts, and blogs. The term itself has also been re-broadened, so to speak. ‘Philosophy’ has taken on many new shades of meaning as it’s used to refer to a particular view of life, or aesthetic taste, or set of aspirations, or working theory of knowledge, or organization method, or substitution for the loaded term ‘spiritual’ …even a brand of skin care products (this one disgusts me somewhat, as it offends my aesthetic taste and sense of the ‘sacred’ by capitalizing on public respect for one of my most beloved, to me non-commodifiable things). Some of its newfound popularity is the result of advancing secularization accompanied by the desire to retain transcendence and meaning; some is the result of our newly data-centric lives brought to us by the word wide web, creating the need to make sense of the deluge of new information available to us; some is the result of the blending, annexing, and clashing of cultures in a world now widely and intimately connected through advanced media technologies and ease of travel, creating the need to find ways of communicating and living together in a world of new complexities. It’s all happening so fast that each of us is experiencing the urgency to make sense of it all right away, in a way that is practicable in our own communities and subcultures, and in a way each of us can understand and readily communicate.

In short, philosophy is enjoying a comeback in the public square. What I’m calling citizen philosophers are those who ask and answer questions there, about the nature of the universe and how to make sense of our experiences of it, who are not necessarily engaged in professional or academic philosophy. While citizen philosophers tend to spend a significant amount of time engaged in such inquiry and are motivated to educate themselves widely and systematically, many find academic philosophy too arcane and obscure to help the rest of us navigate our increasingly complex lives.

I, for one, love academic philosophy. I am continuously in awe of the work these men and women do, devoting their lives to hard study, to asking the most challenging questions, and to deep examination of the most nuanced and complex problems. This body of work is breathtaking in its scope, beautiful in the elegance of its arguments and solutions, satisfying in its wit and cleverness, fascinating in its intensive scholarship, and indispensable in its ability to help us figure out why and how to make a better world. I find it highly enjoyable and fulfilling, as well as challenging and frustrating, to grasp and wrangle with the work of academic philosophers. To be sure, academic philosophy has had its share of what David Hume calls sophistry and illusion, fit only to be consigned to the flames, and what Harry Frankfort more succinctly calls ‘bullshit’. But philosophy is not alone in this: science has had its phrenology and eugenics, medicine its humours and bloodletting, theology its justification for slavery and pogroms, and so on. Like these other disciplines, academic philosophy has some wonderfully effective built-in self-correctors, and continues to be an essential, I think preeminent, field of inquiry.

Marketplace in Duisburg by Theodor Weber, 1850, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsBut many of the most important and interesting questions don’t come down on us from on high, so to speak, originating from academia and revealed, as if a sort of holy writ, to the rest of us. In fact, most of the questions and problems we all wrangle with still originate in the public square, in the home, workplace, classroom, hospital, church, courtroom, political assembly, and so on. They bubble up from the challenges and uncertainties of our daily lives, are filtered through conversation and the arts, are swept up in social, legal, and political movements and institutions, and carried into the pool of academic philosophy, where they are further clarified and distilled in treatises, lectures, books, and so on.

And these questions don’t only originate with the public at large, we offer our first answers there. The answers range from fragmentary to nuanced, from intuitive to considered, from repetitions of received wisdom to original, from off-the-cuff to well-informed, by people from all walks of life with their own areas of expertise and unique capabilities of understanding born of particular experience. These citizen philosophers are on the first line of discovery and inquiry, and so called because they don’t participate in this process as a profession, but as a matter of personal interest and as a member of society at large, not subject to the demands and constraints of academic philosophy. Of course, the category of citizen philosopher does not exclude academic philosophers, because of course they, too, participate in the same process of question-creation and question-answering in the course of their everyday lives, separate from their academic pursuits.

It’s the very lack of the demands and constraints of academic philosophy that gives citizen philosophy an important role to play in public life. The world as it is offers so many varieties of human experience, so many ways of seeing the world, so many challenges that academic philosophers, like the rest of us, never have the opportunity to confront directly. Yet the scope of academic philosophy, at least potentially, is as broad as the possibilities of human (even, perhaps nonhuman?) experience. So how can it be that academic philosophers can possibly access enough information to ask and answer all the important questions that could be addressed? It may be, if academic philosophers were endowed with immense powers of comprehension and imagination that would enable them to take all the information available in the world, to truly understand what it’s like to be a coal miner in China, a cardiologist experiencing a heart attack firsthand, a one and a half year old who just created their first sentence, a person with frontal lobe epilepsy experiencing a supernatural vision, or a terrorist who became so after their entire family was killed by a bomb, and then conceive of all of the social, epistemic, metaphysical, political, and every other sort of question that may arise from these experience. (À la the mythical Mary in Frank Jackson’s black and white room.) But of course, this is impossible, as even the most intelligent and informed human mind has its limits. Sometimes, raw data is the fodder of academic philosophical inquiry. But most often, it’s the questions, moral precepts, stories, works of art, aphorisms, dogmas, memories, narratives, and all other products of the human mind, already having undergone a first round of questioning and examination, that academic philosophers take up as topics of inquiry. Group discussion in the camps of Nirman (cropped), by Abhijeet Safai, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I, for one, am glad to see philosophy ever more present in the public square. That’s because I perceive philosophy as the great quest for understanding that academic and citizen philosophers all engage in, and as I see it, each gives something of immeasurable and irreplaceable value to the other. We need only recall some philosophical forays that have failed, from hairsplitting quibbles of scholasticism to navelgazing-verging-on-masturbatory obscurantisms of postmodernism, to recognize that academic philosophy benefits enormously by maintaining a robust discourse with the broader human community of activists, artists, reporters, bloggers, protesters, discussion groups, and of all others who care enough to question.  The discipline and expertise of academic philosophers, and the broader set of experiences, challenges, and opportunities for new questions and unique ways of understanding of the larger community of citizen philosophers each serve to keep the other more honest, more challenged, and more informed, in the great world conversation we’re all having.

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