Monday, January 23, 2012

Being a Philosopher

People who teach, study, and write about philosophy routinely refer to themselves as “philosophers.” Lately I have become deeply ambivalent about this language. At first glance it seems weirdly pretentious. If someone asks me what I do, I don’t answer “I’m a philosopher.” I do not expect my discomfort with this label to decrease the more I have written and the longer I’ve taught. Now I am a graduate student of philosophy. Eventually I hope to be a professor of philosophy. But a philosopher?

But as I've mulled over my discomfort, I've come to think it is far deeper than worries about apparent pretentiousness. The uneasiness I feel, however, is not with the notion of being a philosopher itself, but with making “philosopher” a professional term—as if one only need to teach and write on the right topics to be doing philosophy. Being a philosopher is not an academic accomplishment. After all, as Pieper reminds us, anyone can do philosophy:

Anybody can ponder human deeds and happenings and thus gaze into the unfathomable depths of destiny and history; anybody can get absorbed in the contemplation of a rose or human face and thus touch the mystery of creation; everybody, therefore, participates in the quest that has stirred the minds of the great philosophers since the beginning.

When is someone a “philosopher?” Maybe that’s not an important question. Maybe the better questions are "what is philosophy?" and "am I doing philosophy?" (doing philosophy, whatever exactly it amounts to, doubtless means more than teaching or writing about it)? And if the answer to the latter question is “yes,” or at least, “I’m doing my best,” that is all that matters.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Communication, Community, and the Internet (Re: SOPA)

A remarkable thing happened this week. The internet was threatened by unprecedented government intervention and this threat was met with an online protest of unprecedented size. During all of this, I began reading Josef Pieper's Faith, Hope, Love, not having an inkling the two could have anything to do with one another. But when I ran across this passage in Pieper's discussion of belief, I couldn't help but think of this week's events:

I refer of course to the life of our fellowmen under the conditions of tyranny. As we all know, under such conditions no one dares to trust anyone else. Candid communication dries up; and there arises that special kind of unhealthy worldliness which is not silence so much as muteness. This is what happens to human intercourse under the peculiar pressures of dictatorship. Under conditions of freedom, however, human beings speak uninhibitedly to one another. How illuminating this contrast is! For in the face of it, we suddenly become aware of the degree of human closeness, mutual affirmation, communion, that resides in the simple fact that people listen to each other and are disposed from the start to trust and "believe" each other. We do not wish to rhapsodize about this, and grand words should always be used with caution. Still, we do well to recognize that everyone who speaks to another without falseness, even if what he says is not "confidential", is actually extending a hand and offering communion; and he who listens to him in good faith is accepting the offer and taking that hand. This very advertence of the will, which, admittedly we cannot quite call "love", though it partakes somewhat of love's nature—this sense of mutual trust and free interchange of thoughts produces a unique type of community. In such a community he who is hearing participates in the knowledge of the knower. (40-41)

The internet makes an astonishing amount of communication possible. As Pieper points out, anywhere where there is uninhibited communication, there is a kind of community. Just think about the kind of things social media makes possible. The protests against SOPA are themselves evidence of the power of the internet to connect people around ideas. The threat of SOPA was that it would hinder such open communication. Websites designed for content sharing could be punished because of the behavior of a few of their users. Given the high cost of carefully policing users, many such sites could be forced to shut down. More importantly, new sites driven by content-sharing would be difficult to get off the ground. And to what end? SOPA was aimed, as the end of the video below points out, at making internet users into consumers, so the entertainment industry can make a few bucks.

This video suggests we should be aware of future threats of the same kind. After all, the entertainment industry has long been trying to acquire giant, blunt legal instruments to protects its intellectual property. I don't discourage such awareness, but I would also recommend a different kind of vigilance. One rather disturbing aim of SOPA was to make us into lazy consumers, ready to watch or listen to whatever the entertainment industry puts in front of us. The best way to combat this is to take advantage of the internet's many ways of allowing active communication and community. Go find music you'd never find on the radio (for example, you can get all kinds of free, legal, new music at Learn about something you wouldn't pick up at work or in class (, for example, is a great way to get introduced to classical liberal ideas about economics and politics). Make and make use of things that are only available because of the kinds of things that SOPA threatened. You can become just as passive an internet user as a tv watcher. Don't.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


As I walked from my apartment to my office this morning in the softly falling snow, it did something to me that it is difficult to describe. It brings to mind a passage from Josef Pieper:

How splendid is water, a rose, a tree, an apple, a human face—such exclamations can scarcely be spoken without also giving tongue to an assent and affirmation which extends beyond the object praised and touches upon the origin of the universe. Who among us has not suddenly looked into his child's face, in the midst of the toils and troubles of everyday life, and at that moment ‘seen’ that everything which is good loved and lovable, loved by God! Such certainties all mean, at bottom, one and the same thing: that the world is plumb and sound; that everything comes to its appointed goal; that in spite of all appearances, underlying all things is – peace, salvation, gloria; that nothing and no one is lost; that [as Plato says] "God holds in his hand the beginning, the middle, and the end of all that is."

Monday, January 9, 2012

Pieper on Teaching

This weekend I read Josef Pieper's The Silence of St. Thomas and ran across the following passage, in which Pieper describes Thomas Aquinas' approach to teaching:

Teaching, for Thomas, is something other and greater than to impart by one method or another the "findings of research"; something other and greater than the report of a thinker on the results of his inquiry, not to mention the ways and by-ways of his search. Teaching is a process of that goes on between living men. The teacher looks not only at the truth of things; at the same time he looks at the faces of living men who desire to know this truth. Love of truth and love of men—only the two together constitute a teacher. (23)

A good reminder at the beginning of a new semester of teaching!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Being Three-Dimensional

Yesterday, I read Wendell Berry's "How to Be a Poet". As I often find myself doing with his work, I spent some time chewing on it. While his advice is ostensibly about how to write poetry, much of it applies, it seems to me, to living well in general. Take, for example, the second stanza:

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

The bold passage was especially thought-provoking. How, it made me wonder, can I better live "a three-dimensioned life?" In particular, it got me thinking about the importance of being aware of the people around me. When you live in a world that is abstract and two-dimensional (like mine, in which I spend much of my day focused on a computer screen or a book), it is easy to forget the people that inhabit the three-dimensional world you live in. Between mulling over this and the usual reflection that comes with a new year, I began writing a series of injunctions to myself. A bit like Berry's poem (subtitled "to remind myself"), they are for me, but I figured I'd share:

-Don't let your work distract you from the people and places around you and then pretend it's because your work is important. Your work only matters because people matter.

-Write like you’re in a place—like you’re in a room talking to people. Think of your audience as listeners, not readers.

-When you choose to write about something, ask yourself: why does this matter? Focus on saying things that are important, not clever or sophisticated. It’s fine to fill in gaps in the literature, to expose a poor argument, or make an interesting point, but these are not ends in themselves. Pedantry is overrated. Be a human being, not an academic.

-Treat your body right. Get and stay in shape. Eat right. Quit living like a dualist. You are not separate from your body. Stop treating your body like your car. The soul is the form of the body, not its driver. Your body is not something that is external to you. Don't treat it like that.

-Get in a rhythm. Work when the sun is up. Relax when the sun goes down. Sleep enough.

-You have time. Everything can't happen tomorrow. Technology has trained you to seek instant gratification. Don't; you won't find it anyway. Very few things of any importance happen overnight.

-You are not in control. Stop trying to be God and quit whining every time you realize you aren't.

-You have nothing to lose. Nothing. Real treasure is not stored where moth and rust destroy. So quit worrying about moths and rust. Your citizenship is in heaven.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Old Truth for a New Year

Sometimes it's good to be reminded of things we know are true. I read this passage from Josef Pieper's The Concept of Sin the other day and it seemed an appropriate reminder at the beginning of a new year:

To be entirely and completely in harmony [d'accord] with oneself - that only occurs to the one who is doing the good; to him alone belongs that happiness that comes to the one who is able to throw himself absolutely and with full sails into what he is doing. (38)