I have long had a love/hate relationship with philosophy. I once wrote a short piece that began with the sentence, “Epistemology pisses me off!” Epistemology deals with that branch of philosophy that concerns itself with how we “know” things. How is certainty of fact established? Arguments have been put forth in favour of pure logic and reason as opposed to observable experience, empirical evidence, and such. The go-round arguments it generates end up resembling a dog chasing its tail. It is a spectacle that is at once entertaining, mostly futile and occasionally painful.
If empirical evidence was all that established knowledge, none of us would ever have our senses fooled by a magic show and we would know that those pools of water on the hot road ahead were actually there because we see them with our own eyes. If logic were the be-all and end-all of gaining knowledge, there would be no need to run tests on that new drug treatment. We reasoned it out. We know how it will work – it’ll be okay – want some?
I managed to earn an “A” in the one philosophy course I was required to take for my degree and the professor did pull me aside and urge me to go into the field, but I demurred respectfully. I love the depth and abstract levels of thinking that are incumbent upon the philosopher, yet I also regard it as almost dangerous navel-gazing which generates opposite responses as often as it solves any pressing problems of awareness.
Friedrich Nietzsche for example, is credited with more than a couple of quotable aphorisms and his philosophy is credited with inciting Hitler to follow what he believed to be Nietzsche’s philosophy even as Hitler directed all manner of unspeakable atrocities. Hey, when you’re that powerful, anything you do is automatically right – right? Hitler thought that Nietzsche thought so. Trump thinks so, but this article is not about Trump, per se. In fact, I’ve heard that Trump doesn’t read at all, so he’s out of this loop.
If you have ever heard or said, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” (nice aphorism, often untrue), that comes from Nietzsche. Hitler’s famous book, Mein Kampf, means “my struggles.” Nietzsche was a firm believer that pain enabled joy. He even railed against the “eternal recurrence of the same.” That possibility sounded hellish to Nietzsche. I say, it all depends on how you view your state of being. If you, like Candide (or Pollyanna), view your condition as being fortunate, the eternal recurrence of the same might well be regarded as heavenly. But Nietzsche was obsessed with suffering, not joy. If one had to struggle to achieve one’s goals, the joy of achieving those goals became that much greater. It became worth the pain of sacrifice. I guess Hitler missed the point of its needing to be his sacrifice not the sacrifice of others. So it goes with philosophy and many other forms of possibly well-meant advice.
Certain statements and declarations may sound right but they often don’t hold up well to logical scrutiny.
I once had an acquaintance who advised with very certain professional expertise, “Never water your garden in the evening!” Then, before I could even venture to ask why not, he offered his rationale, “You wouldn’t put your kids to bed wet, would you?” Absent time and inclination to think, it sounded right enough. But just hold on a minute! I also wouldn’t sink my kid’s feet in dirt and leave him in the sunshine all day, nor do ‘my kids’ have the habit of converting sunshine into nutrition through photosynthesis, nor are they rained upon whenever meteorological conditions dictate that it be so. In fact, the only similarity my boy had to plants was that once when he overindulged in alcohol he did take on a rather greenish appearance. I don’t know for sure, but the ‘don’t water in the evening’ admonishment just kinda fell flat for me.
But that’s the problem that I have with such blanket bits of sensational advice, wise-sounding aphorisms and philosophy in general. It is sufficiently abstract that it can be wildly misinterpreted even with certain conviction of accuracy being held by the misinterpreter. Philosophers wrestle with conceptual torments without knowing whether the concepts are demonic or angelic in nature. That which emerges from their thought is often equally indistinguishable as being one or the other. And finally, it all comes down to how it is interpreted.
Consider this Nietzsche-esque gem of thought: “If you stare into the abyss, the abyss will stare back into you.” Yeesh! Is that ominous, or what? I take it to mean that entertaining such monsters as the mind is capable of producing will strengthen them, possibly even bring them forth. Still, philosophers have judged that staring into the abyss is a worthwhile and productive thing to do. And why not? Just because we choose to look away doesn’t mean that the monsters don’t exist. And yet, paying attention to them can have the effect of giving them a certain amount of energy, perhaps even giving them lives of their own. Such conundrums are simultaneously the bane and the delight of philosophers.
I touched on this idea in a previous posting Common traits with Trump! by saying that the only absolute is that there are no absolutes. Upon considering that as possible truth, my mind reels back with slackened tape whirling freely, forming useless, untensioned loops on dangerously unsynchronized reels and I say, “Wait! What?” just like Mr. Spock does when his human friends want to be rid of him. Just feed him an unsolvable conundrum, that’ll shut him up for awhile! But, but, … if there are no absolutes and that is absolutely true, isn’t that an absolute that proves its opposite? A conundrum, to be sure. Philosophy. Don’t let epistemology piss you off. Here’s my well intentioned advice. Love it or leave it alone!