Nov 8, 2010

Like a beautiful but never ending maze

There are two answers: 1) Beauty. 2) Entanglement. Except that maybe they're the same.

As the photographer focused his lens, framed his shot, and snapped the faces of philosophers, nearly 200 of them over a span of 22 years, he asked, "Why philosophy?" He asked and he got these answers, which might be this answer, which is, I think, a strange truth about philosophy.

Some of the photos went up on the New York Times site this weekend, along with the 50-word answers to the question. More can be seen on Steve Pyke's own website, where you can see some of the work he's done to ensure "some record of the philosophers."

The sampling shows there were two general answers to the question. Of course this is a reduction and an oversimplification. There are a variety of answers, a whole spectrum, but the spectrum seems to have two sides, and to go from a sense of philosophy as a feeling of feeling trapped, to philosophy as amazingly breathtaking.

From, philosophy is the highest accomplishment of humankind, to, help, I can't get out of here!

Slovoj Zizek, for example, the most famous of the bunch the New York Times selected, says:


I HATE philosophy, but I cannot find peace if I do not get rid of a philosophical problem. Philosophy is for me like women: they are impossible, but it is even more difficult without them. I am only happy between the writing of two books - then I relax... and start thinking of philosophy.
Ted Williamson, on the other hand, compares it to poetry --

a precise and radical imagination, an elegant and powerful form, exactly the right expressions in exactly the right order, subtle variations on a theme, the unfamiliar articulation of the familiar, reflection in language on language and its relation to the world, depth achieved through scrupulous accuracy.
-- and Simon Blackburn says, "it has no boundaries." Karl Popper, who surprised me with how beautiful his face is, says there is only one way to do philosophy: "to see its beauty and fall in love with it; to get married to it, and to live with it happily."

My favorite answer is Rae Langton's:
My parents once cautioned me, recalling St. Paul's warning to 'beware of vain philosophy' (Was he warning against philosophy, or just vain philosophy? You're condemned to do some philosophy just to grasp the warning).
Perhaps the best one, though, is Phillipa Foot's, which isn't an answer at all, but an explanation about what happens after you ask the question you want an answer to.

"You ask a philosopher a question," she says, "and after he or she has talked for a bit, you don't understand your question any more."

There are more answers, of course, and variety in the answers, but they seem to oscillate from here to here.

I suspect, though, that the two answers are really the same. There's a unity behind this kind of dichotomy we see when we ask "why philosophy?" The feeling of philosophy, the sensation of doing philosophy, is both of these.

It's being trapped in clarity. It's feeling free in a labyrinth.

There is, I think, a whole secret history of philosophy here, from Socrates to Wittgenstein, from Aquinas to Descartes even to the so-called Speculative Realists. More consistent than any questions asked is this feeling, this experience of feeling trapped and of, at the same time, being engaged in something wonderful.

A friend who doesn't do philosophy once told me that when he took one class, the class he needed to take for literature, he felt sick. He felt like you feel when you're trapped in your head, and endless, incessant circle of words you think around and around, a mental dog chasing it's tail, a snatch tune you sing off tune to yourself and can't stop until you're crazy

That kind of sounded right to me, except for me, and for those I know who did philosophy, the thing was we were already there. We were already living on the edge of that scream of claustrophobia, and philosophy, in showing us how we were trapped and how to think about how our thinking was trapped -- it didn't free us. Or show us the way out. But still there was a sense of realization, and we weren't crazy, and with that realization, a fascination with the complexity of the condition of being condemned to being entangled in something so confusing, so never ending, so beautiful.

On bad days, of course, it would still feel like claustrophobia. On good days, though, it's like being in a dream of rooms, where room leads to room leads to room, and all of them are interesting, all of them fantastic, all of them unfolding forever without ever leading out.