The Taciturn and the Garden Party

I had two thoughts on my mind just now. First one, then the other. Both of them seemed like good blog topics, and as I sat down to write on the second, I realized they’re connected, and interestingly so.

First, I was thinking about philosophy and how it affects me, and why I avoid it or hold it at arms’ length too much of the time. Then, I was thinking about how painfully banal most of my conversations are.

Philosophy does this to me: I start thinking about a philosophical problem, and if I don’t immediately grasp or at least intuit the solution, I begin to feel a rising agitation. My mind stirs awake. I swear I can actually feel the heat as my synapses spark, then ignite, then blaze. The mundane fades away. The pace of thought quickens. Hypotheses burst forth, illuminate, become unstable, go supernova, destroy everything that touches them. Vacuum, suffocation, panic. New hypotheses take form, furtively. Suddenly (Hello, Polaris) there’s enough to intuit a perspective on the problem; I get a sense of direction.

All the while I’m scrawling hurried notes. I can’t get the ideas out fast enough. They fall apart before they’re given form in words. Perspective is lost, my hypotheses no longer indicate anything, but shine stupidly at me like the visage of an idiot grinning at his ice cream cone. I start to come down from the high.

Krrack! Charred oaken hunks and flaming splinters fill the air. I jump out of my chair, fumble for a pen and a scrap of paper, can’t write, no backing, pen pokes through the sheet, there’s the wall. I lean up on it and write ten letters before the ink fails. Shaking the pen I hop from foot to foot like Rumpelstiltskin. “Motherf**ker!” I yell, toss the paper, fling the pen end over end into the wall like a tomahawk, wince (that’ll leave a mark). At the keyboard, typing in whatever app is open. Lots of typos, no time to correct. Where is that &%*@ing tape recorder?

The hypotheses shimmer like will-o’-the-wisps as I hammer out a rough paragraph. Not stars at all, deceptive beasts. Not stars, Chinese lanterns: varicolored, beautiful, resting in the branches of trees. Leaves glow pink and orange and blue and spring’s daylight green in the darkness. Ladies dressed in finery wander along garden paths, gentlemen at their arms. I take something from a silver tray and, shoeless, amble onto a lawn of soft, springy grass. Across the lawn several revelers are roasting marshmallows in the smouldering heart of an oak.

After I return, I creep into bed late, trying not to disturb my wife. I sleep for four hours, wake up, and start thinking along the edges of my garden until I find where the hedges reach out into cold, empty space. Once more into the breach.

When I’m in the grip of a philosophical problem, I won’t willingly think of much else. I can’t keep regular hours. I think until I find a garden or I’m exhausted, sometimes longer. Every answer uncovers new questions. I feel enticements approaching the irresistible as I wander virgin territory. One problem can be set aside. Two with difficulty. Ten? I won’t try it.

To philosophize as I’m naturally inclined would require totally free time, zero non-philosophical obligations. I’m skeptical that there’s any other way philosophy can be justly pursued. The less-than-half-assed attenuation that is my current philosophical life can only produce work vastly inferior, often dissipated or frivolous.

That’s not a complaint, but a concern. Who philosophizes if total immersion is the essential mode of philosophy? Certainly not scholars, with their classes, research, administrative obligations, etc. Certainly not anyone in the workaday world. Perhaps only beasts and gods.

This brings me to my unsatisfying conversations. I try not to think about my two favorite problems too much these days (how to demonstrate free will and crush the compatibilist word-jugglery, how to develop and test my solution to the problem of universals) because thinking about them would be like listening to half a movement of Mahler and switching to Third Eye Blind: jarring, unpleasant, and wasteful. But just today I realized that I haven’t been successful in closing off the philosophical wing of my brain. Sneakily, denied access to its favorite ideas, that insistent organ has begun thinking philosophically about the people around me.

Ideas are much more engaging conversationalists than people. People almost never talk about anything interesting at all, and if they begin to be interesting, they often seem inexplicably ashamed, as if they’ve noticed their fly is down, but can’t figure out how to fix it without drawing attention right to the problem area. An exception is in the afterglow of a party or an outing, especially where alcohol or adrenaline have been involved. I find folk are much more inclined to say something interesting during these otherworldly interludes. But you can tell then that they’re out of their element, like introverts liquored into loquaciousness. They’re not behind whatever they’re saying; they don’t mean it. The next day, they’ll have devolved into blocks, stones, worse than senseless things.


Do they sense, however remotely, sometime while backsliding from their infrequent peaks, the Garden beckoning? Do they sense that thinking about things meaningfully, as a philosopher does, can be all-consuming and transformative, and a powerful impediment to a ‘normal’ life? I hold philosophy at arms’ length knowingly, provisionally, so that I can keep traction on the far less interesting problems I’ve got to work on these days. But I can’t ever seem to truly shake its habits, and wouldn’t want to. Is some parallel gambit in incessant play among them, albeit one that’s spectacularly more effective?

I don’t have an answer, or even a bright intuition. … Forget it. I wonder what’s on VH1?

I Shall Be Telling This With A Sigh

I just popped over to Strike the Root and found this old-friendly quotation:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

This is philosophy, callow pretenders, the very thing-in-itself. Compare:

O Voltaire! O humaneness! O nonsense! There is something about “truth,” about the search for truth; and when a human being is too human about it—“il ne cherche le vrai que pour faire le bien” [“He seeks the true only to do the good.”]—I bet he finds nothing. ~ Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 35.

Presumed Incompetent

Contrary to the respectable opinion-in-practice, the way to get the most out of intellectual exchange may well be to presume your interlocutor is a duplicitous imbecile, but that his argument is vastly more subtle and penetrating than at least first impressions suggest.

Intellectual Conscience

In the course of my long term quest to discover what a philosopher ought to be, I realized, to my (it is not exaggeration to say) horror, that there are a great number of men (), apparently a majority, who cannot philosophize. The most interesting and penetrating diagnosis of this condition I have ever encountered—by far—was in the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche. In the passage I am thinking of, Nietzsche claims that the great majority of men “lacks an intellectual conscience” — by which he means that they are not affected by the drive (quintessential to philosophers) to be certain in their understanding of the world. This absence of conscience, which I have encountered directly many times in my day-to-day interaction with people, and have noticed lurking in almost all popular writing on philosophical matters, is parallel in severity to the lack of moral conscience that TV and movie sociopaths traditionally exhibit. The average person has no more capacity for philosophy, it seems, than Hannibal Lecter has empathy with rude people. The condition is positively pandemic.

When I first started considering my fellow man along these dimensions, before I knew the term “intellectual conscience,” or even had a clear idea in my head to which this term would correspond, I was working from the assumption that every man, being a rational animal, has the basic tools to understand reason, and therefore philosophy. But if what we’re talking about is not rationality per se, but an (emotional) commitment to rationality, where does that leave us? Possessing a tool, having the knowledge about its proper use, and having the will to use it are all separate things. In being human, every man possesses rationality, i.e. the capacity to philosophize and understand philosophical issues. Training in logic, or even simple life experience, can impart knowledge on how to better employ our natural gifts of rationality. However, no amount of training or experience can, directly, lead to the desire to use reason, to prefer it over other (ineffective) modes of comprehending the world.

It is a commonly held belief these days that debate, especially on fundamental matters, is futile. The merit of this belief is itself debatable, but one thing is certain: rational persuasion is futile unless those whom one would persuade possess an intellectual conscience. Does this mean, in light of the pandemic poverty of the primary philosophical prerequisite in the polity, that democracy itself is futile? I honestly don’t know.

As long as The People are predominantly uncommitted to rationality, they will always be easy prey for demagogues. As long as this condition obtains, individual liberty cannot be secured. Following some variant of this reasoning, many libertarians have opined that it is necessary to their political goals that a culture of rationality and respect for the individual be brought about in America. Educational reforms, increased home schooling, and battle for control of the Academy have all been suggested as steps toward this goal. Yet, if it is true that the intellectual conscience cannot be taught, isn’t cultural reform of this sort a fools errand at best, and a duplicitous Machiavelian feint at worst? Public schools and the university system churn out graduates now who make very malleable citizens, not firmly attached to any set of principles, let alone those difficult principles consonant with individual liberty. If this system could be retooled to churn out graduates with a good knowledge of history and a solid respect for liberty, which I have little doubt that it could, would the fundamental malleability of their beliefs really have been affected? Not if intellectual conscience cannot be taught. Indeed, if the beliefs of these liberty loving graduates of the future aren’t to be rooted in good intellectual conscience, then any storm, war, say, or depression, could easily uproot them. Not only that, any set of beliefs that doesn’t find its ultimate foundation in good intellectual conscience is, ipso facto, religious rather than rational in nature. The state religion of the present is pragmatic relativism, and the postmodernist professoriat of the universities is its priesthood. Any fundamental political value but liberty can be founded in such a religion, indeed must be founded in such; but I shudder to imagine the chimera of a state religion posited as the foundation of liberty.

Ultimately, I think, liberty can only be secured by a broad base of individuals who possess the intellectual conscience and understand the philosophical arguments for liberty. Consequently, I am intensely interested in the origins of the intellectual conscience. Where does it come from? Why do some people have it and not others? Can one obtain an intellectual conscience or is one predisposed toward or against it from early childhood? So far, absolutely all the evidence I have uncovered has indicated that the intellectual conscience simply is present in a person or it isn’t. It cannot be taught. It may not be possible even for it to be learned. It seems to me, moreover, that those people who have an intellectual conscience and those who don’t differ in kind and not merely in degree. They are homo philosophicus and homo theologicus, pardoning my fake Latin. Ought not lovers of liberty beware of embracing homo theologicus into our fold? And if we are to eschew their company, and their support, how can we be free of them in a democratic order?