Saturday, 7 April 2012

Why My Personal Problems Are The Same As My Philosophical Problems

We're big on separating our lives into different arenas. "Keep your work life and your personal life separate," we say, not always unwisely. We worry when our relationship problems affect our studies, or when, going the other direction, exam stress affects our relationships. We'd rather keep things in their proper place. Mostly there isn't much of a problem with that. But some things really are too tangled up to be easily wrenched apart and not just because we've carelessly let ourselves becomes consumed by one particular thing, but because sometimes there isn't a sensible separation to be made. Consider the issue of health. If you suddenly fall ill, that's not just going to effect you in one closed off segment of your life labelled "health". No, it will affect your whole life; it may be a strain on your marriage or other relationships, it'll effect your daily routine, your work capabilities, your mood, and so on. Even if you aren't "ill" per se, your diet and lifestyle still affect your whole life across the board. You don't have your "personal life" and then your "health life" as something totally distinct. The same is true for my "personal life" and my "philosophical life". They can't be rigidly distinguished.

I say my personal and philosophical life, but really I want to argue that the same is true for all of us. In reflecting upon my own experience I want to suggest that none of us can escape having a "philosophical dimension" to our lives. We can be unaware of it, or neglect giving it proper attention, but nonetheless it will be there. I also want to illustrate something of what philosophy actually is. My hairdresser felt a little embarrassed recently when, after enquiring as to what I wanted to study for a Masters, she apologetically confessed to not knowing what philosophy was. At the risk of projecting my own attitudes on to her, she seemed a little excited when I explained a bit about it. I hope that I can excite you too.

Many of us, at one point or another, come to ask the "big questions" like "is there a God?" and "what's the meaning of life?" But maybe not all of us do. Maybe those aren't questions you yourself are much concerned with. Probably though, you've thought about questions like "how can I be happy?", "how can I make my relationships work?", "how should I navigate through this particular life problem?" While I confess that I'm someone who has been deeply concerned with the traditional big questions, I am also deeply involved in those other questions. In virtue of being human, I want to know how I can be happy; I want to know how to have good meaningful relationships, and I want to know how to deal with the difficulties of life. I want to know how to work through tensions in relationships. Politics in the work place. My own character flaws. These are bread and butter issues of our lives. And they are all loaded with philosophical significance. I'll offer you the most recent significant example from my life of a philosophical "quest" that's intrinsically bound up with personal concerns. 

Like of lot of young twenty-somethings, I've grown up placing a large emphasis on authenticity and "being true to yourself", where importance is given to not hiding what you're really feeling. You need to express yourself or else you're being dishonest to others and you're lying to yourself. Indeed for me (as it is for many other people) this has just been the "default" common sense stance rather than a particular position I've consciously adopted. But encountering certain difficulties within my life has made me question this outlook. I've suffered (and inflicted suffering upon others) because of the great trouble I've had actually discerning what I'm "really" feeling. I've found that when I look inwards to try and discover my genuine sentiments on a matter, I find my emotions confused and even altered by my very attempts to describe and express them."Being authentic" has left me sort of stuck. If I can't determine what I "really" feel, how am I to "be true" to those feelings? The only feelings I've been sure of as a result are frustration and despair.

Naturally enough this is all the more crippling when combined with the "common sense" expectation of romance. If, by Western wisdom, you are suppose to be with the person you are "truly" in love with, then how are you to proceed when you can't make any sense of what it is that you "truly" feel? Cue once more the frustration and despair. But through engaging with philosophical material I've come to learn that the "common sense" understanding that I'd adopted of both authenticity and love is not a universal feature of human common sense, but is instead a framework that's emerged very recently in history, and only in the West. This has opened up space for me to ask, "are these correct frameworks?" Perhaps the popular understanding of these notions is simply wrong and it isn't just that I suck at them. Indeed my reading around this area has more and more convinced me that the received Western view is deeply problematic, as hard to initially imagine as that is. William Reddy draws upon psychological, anthropological, and philosophical scholarship to make the case that emotions are altered by our own attempts to understand them, just as I'd experienced, and that as a result, we need to alter our understanding of what sincerity is really about. Dror Wahrman shows how historically peculiar the idea of having a unique, core, and "true" self is, and Charles Taylor subjects the idea to a damning critique.1

Pursuing this examination of authenticity has led me into deep intellectual waters: to the philosophical exploration of what "the self" actually is, and also of what happened in some of the great cultural revolutions of the last 500 years. But as academic at this pursuit has been, and as interesting-for-its-own-sake as this stuff is, it has never just been some disengaged flight of intellectual fancy. At its core I just want to know how to understand myself, what emotions are and what to do with them, how to love, how to be happy, and how to help others with the same. It is an effort to do life better. The pursuit of happiness, the navigation of emotional experience; these aren't things that I can separate from my "personal life"; these thing are my personal life. I wasn't doing life very well with the old received frameworks and so I hope to replace them with better frameworks.

None of us do life very well if we're operating with a distorted view of reality. Imagine driving down the road falsely believing that there are cars where there aren't and there aren't cars where there are. You'd be very lucky to get through in one piece. If we navigate the "road of our lives" while misjudging the direction of the road and the amount of traffic, we're going to get hurt. That's what I believe I was doing when I lived through the "authenticity framework" (which was just one personal example of many). Philosophy (and I include theology under this umbrella) is about making sure we have a well drawn map of life's terrain, and a good compass to get us through it. It's about thinking hard about the direction we're going in and the tools we're using, and seeing whether we could stand to realign ourselves and tweak our co-ordinates. 

Philosophy, then, is not some abstract game played by a few intellectuals to pass the time (or it shouldn't be). Rather it is at the heart of life itself. All our deepest concerns are ultimately philosophical concerns. We all have maps/frameworks that we're following to get us through life and unless we stop and reflect on these maps, we are going to simply take it for granted that they are correct, even if they are causing us harm. Indeed our eyes may be so fixated on a route drawn for us that we mistake our map for the road itself; we are unaware that the framework we're using is even open to question - that there might be other, better ones available. Unless we think about the maps we're using and where they're unclear, mistaken, or missing some features, we will blindly run ahead along an ill-planned journey. A wise person is someone who travels life well, and it isn't by coincidence that the Greek word philosophia literally translates as "love of wisdom". 

Of course, we can't spend our whole time just thinking about our maps. We must put our feet to the road too. Doing so will in turn help our thinking. The two go hand-in-hand. As much as critiquing the authenticity framework will hopefully help me live better, the living helped me get a handle on the critique. Would I ever have found its problems without also living them? To be wise one must neither burn her books nor never look up from behind them. A good life requires philosophy, and good philosophy requires living.

You need not plunge into lengthy technical treaties to get started. Just ask questions about life and ask them to and with other people. Step into dialogue. Consider also reading some religious material. Jesus of Nazareth, the figure who claimed to be Wisdom incarnate - the figure who's poured more wisdom into my life than any other, spoke about the deepest of humans affairs, and he mainly communicated with story. Start your own quest. Bring both boots and books. 

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1I'm referring here to Reddy's The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotion, Wahrman's The Making of the Modern Self, and Taylor's Sources of the Self. Obviously as this post isn't actually about their arguments, I haven't explicated any of them. I hope to do so in the future. Until then, if you're curious, consult the texts themselves.

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