Discourse / Editorials / October 19, 2011

Why your philosophy reading is unreadable

Oscar Wilde is often remembered for having once written that life is far too important a thing to be taken seriously. Though that may or may not be what he actually wrote, the important thing is how it illustrates what I now propose: namely that philosophy, theology and our outlooks on life in general have been far too dull, abstruse and pessimistic for far too long. We have lost touch with the most fundamental questions that define us as human beings, questions that extend far beyond philosophy majors.

Consider the following excerpt from perhaps the greatest work of modern philosophy, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time:

“Time is abstract negativity. As ‘intuited becoming’ it is the differentiated self-differentiation which one comes across immediately; it is the concept that ‘is there’ – but this means present-at-hand. As something present-at-hand and thus external to spirit, time has no power over the concept, but the concept is rather ‘the power over time.’”

Got that? Yes? I don’t believe you. Perhaps I’m being unfair and you are actually a philosophy professor who does understand this. Who you are not is the author of this piece, who decided a long time ago that if the meaning of life was going to involve phrases like “dialectical materialism” then he wanted no part of it. If life is fundamentally something beautiful and enjoyable, why does everyone seem to think the meaning of it is so dull?

It didn’t used to be this way. The Ancients used to take their philosophy seriously, but they were not above having fun with it. Socrates used to pass his time sitting on the street so that he could ask people questions and then deflate the egos of Athens when they failed to produce a good answer, making him, in at least one sense, an early forerunner of Jay Leno.

Socrates made sure to always have laughter on his side. When he didn’t, notably when Aristophanes used a caricature of him in plays for comic relief, the stories say that Socrates not only went to and enjoyed these plays, but actually stood up in the audience and assured everyone that he wasn’t really all that bad. Yet this “buffoon,” as Nietzsche was later to call him, perhaps single-handedly did more to change the intellectual life of the West than anyone before or since.

Meanwhile, in the other center of ancient culture, China, a thriving tradition of stories that were solely devoted to telling stories of the dour Confucius meeting hermits on the road who made fun of him may have crystallized into the “Tao Te Ching,” the founding document of Taoism and one of the great achievements of Chinese culture.

A later Taoist sage, Zhuangzi, tells a story in which he meets a skull on the road and laments that the skull is dead. The skull then politely tells Zhuangzi to mind his own business because he doesn’t know what it’s like to be dead and it might be quite nice for all he knows.

This sort of sense of fun questioning has been lost somewhere along the way. The question of what the best life is and how one is to live it should be at the forefront of the mind of every student at a liberal arts institution like this one, regardless of their major. Philosophy has gotten lost in dusty books and obtuse jargon, and as a result, has made itself profoundly irrelevant to most modern students. If philosophy wishes to retake its ancient role as the Queen of the Sciences, something has to change.

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