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Philosophy's new clothes

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My most abiding response to Sophie's World is surprise at how narrow the history of philosophy is (in Jostein Gaarder's telling).  The most basic assertion of philosophy is that the "big" questions -- who are you? where does the world come from? -- are universal to humans.  As Gaarder writes in Sophie's Word, "[T]here is something else . . . which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are here."  (p. 14.)  And yet the history that Gaarder writes of the answers to those two questions focuses on the responses of a small group of white men hailing from a sliver of the world's geography. 

I say this not to raise an issue of political correctness, but to question the fundaments of philosophy.  If these questions are universal to humans, why does our history record answers from only so few?  The most obvious possibilities are either that (1) the questions are not universal, (2) that there's a recording problem with the answers, or (3) philosophy has failed to recognize answers to these questions that are offered in another format or under the rubric of another discipline (e.g., myths, political theory, theology).

Is it possible that people don't ask who they are and where the world comes from?  One way of rephrasing this question is to ask if we can we find a society without a creation myth?  Such a society apparently exists: the Pirahã in the Amazon have no identifiable creation myth (as documented in this New Yorker article and this Guardian piece).  The Pirahã also seem not to have a sense of time, which is a likely explanation for why no one in their society asked what existence was like before the Pirahã.

But most societies have a sense of time, along with creation myths.  Are there nonetheless people in those societies that don't ask who they are and where the world comes from?  Without having conducted any empirical research on the question, I'd venture to say "yes."  Asking these questions requires a degree of self-awareness; and self-awareness isn't as common to the human condition as, say, phlegm. 

Gaarder might disagree with me.  In Sophie's World, Gaarder argues that the capacity for wonder is innate in children, and society drums it out of them: "Although philosophical questions concern us all . . . . [f]or various reasons most people get so caught up in everyday affairs that their astonishment at the world gets pushed into the background."  (p. 19.) 

My own perspective is that the process often works in the reverse: absent awareness raising at the outset, people won't necessarily ask "who am I?" and "where does the world come from?"  In my own view, the capacity for wonder, like compassion, is innate only in varying degrees in different individuals, and it must be cultivated.  Sophie's World is itself an account of such calculated cultivation.

Moving on to the second question, is it possible that there are some recording problems with the answers?  I feel confident in saying that oral cultures got the shaft when the history of philosophy was compiled.  Without a written record, oral cultures faced problems preserving their thougths and communicating them across geography, time and language. Whether anything can be done to restore the knowlegdge banks of oral cultures is doubtful -- these repositories largely exist only in the memories of the long-dead -- but the issue of this "lost" contribution to human thinking shades into the third question as well:

Is it possible that the history of philosophy hasn't recognized answers to its questions that were offered in different formats, or under the rubric of different disciplines?  In Sophie's World, Gaarder includes coverage of Darwin, Marx and Freud, people who are not primarily associated with the discipline of philosophy, so perhaps Gaarder would reject my third question.  But I believe the challenge remains.  Aside from Gaarder's exclusion of obvious candidates, like Confucius and Buddha (there are passing references to him, but nothing in depth), Gaarder doesn't confront the fact that modes of thinking in societies vary depending on whether the society is an oral or literate one.

"Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does. . . . More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness," writes Walter Ong, a Jesuit priest and English professor, in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy.  People in literate cultures think differently; they organize information and construct the world in patterns that diverge from those that predominate in oral cultures.  Thus, they may ask different questions; and even if the questions are the same, the answers will certainly be different.  A thousand years ago, the Kyrgz tribe answered the question "who are we?" with the epic poem, Manas.  Is it philosophy?  Probably not.  Does it belong in the history of human thought about philosophical questions?  Probably yes.

From this brief examination of these three questions, the shape of an answer to my original question -- why does the history of philosophy include answers from such a narrow range of humanity? -- begins to emerge.  Specifically, before an individual will offer answers to philosophical questions that qualify for inclusion in the history of philosophy, he or she must live in a culture that:
  • has a sense of time;
  • creates conditions for the cultivation of wonder (or, alternatively, creates conditions that don't squash a sense of wonder innately present in an individual);
  • is literate.
Undoubtedly there are more factors, but this is (an already too long) blog post, not a treatise, so let's leave it at those three.  The important point, however, is that philosophy's claims for universality seem rather frail.  If we can't even say that every human society experiences time, or has a creation myth, how can we agree with Kant's theory (as phrased by Gaarder) that "moral law has the same absolute validity as the physical laws. . . . It applies to all people in all societies at all times."  (p. 330.)  It's an intriguing idea -- and one that might even be to some extent right, if an innate sense of fairness can be equated with morality -- but Kant based his assertion on only the slenderest sampling of human culture and society, which either makes his claims for the power of reason either absurdly arrogant or pitiably silly.

And here, perhaps, is the practical answer to the question of why the history of philosophy includes answers from such a limited range of people: philosophy's insistence on the supremacy of human reason and the universality of its application to humanity, regardless of evidence (or its absence), appeals to a particular kind of ego that often goes by another name: asshole.

Sophie needs less world and more story

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Almost two years ago, I saw Jostein Gaarder give a talk in Beijing.  His general theme was the human propensity for stories: we learn information when it is situated in the context of a story.  Gaarder plainly assimilated the principle without mastering its application.  Sophie's World, which I've just read for the first time, isn't an example of a well-crafted story: it's more of a series of lecture notes for a high school philosophy class strung together with a "frame" that falls apart into an unsatisfying heap by book's end.  

Nonetheless, Sophie's World delighted me in places.  In particular, I was amused because I recalled Gaarder saying that he started out writing Sophie's World without knowing what would happen, and that he spent a lot of time taking long walks around Oslo, trying to figure out how to end the story he'd started.  His resolution actually comes in the middle, not at the end, of the book -- SPOILER ALERT! I'm going to reveal the plot twist -- Gaarder makes Sophie and her philosophy teacher, Alberto, realize that they are nothing more than characters in a book that another man, Albert, is writing as a birthday present for his daughter, Hilde.  The book's plot, such as it is, consists of a not-at-all convincing rebellion of characters against their author.

That said, I love the construct, and I wish Gaarder would've followed it through brilliantly.  His basic insight -- that characters, no matter fictional, seem to have an existence apart from their creator -- immediately resonated with me.  When I'm writing, I often feel like an archeologist, excavating a character that exists independently of me, and that my job is to extract him or her as completely and sensistively as I can.  (In fact, Gaarder uses archeology as a metaphor to describe a process not dissimilar to novel writing -- psychotherapy, which he terms an "archeology of the soul." p. 426.) 

But from what material am I excavating my characters?  Reality?  My imagination?  Another dimension?  I don't know -- probably all three -- but I do occasionally feel that my characters "keep me honest": I can't just make them do whatever I feel like having them do; they have individual integrity, and the range of plot possibilities available to them is determined by their personalities.  I can't make Chastity in Portnoy's Daughter keep her adultery a secret; and I can't force Pip in The Swing of Beijing to call Tyler a loser when he ejaculates prematurely; and even I can't save Dean from his own rotten judgment in Waiting for Love Child (although I probably punish him too harshly).

I am startled every time I feel "push back" from my characters, but I respect "their" resistance because it's guidance on plot development.  The feedback I get from my characters, however imagined (or nonsensical or irrational) that dialectic may be, steers the story on an organic (as opposed to formulaic or externally-determined) course that's consistent with the voice and feel of the created space my characters inhabit. 

Like Gaarder, I don't know what's going to happen when I start writing.  My literary mentor, D.M. Thomas, once wrote to me, "You don't have to know what the end of the journey is.  As Pushkin writes in 'Autumn' -- 'We sail.  Where shall we sail?...'  You are Columbus."  (That's why he's my literary  mentor; the man knows what he's talking about!)  In Portnoy's Daughter, the final chapter, the apotheosis of the story, didn't exist -- even in my most transitory thinking -- until D.M. Thomas told me to write it.  In Waiting for Love Child, my notes for the plot said, "Reveal secret why Lan's parents don't talk to one another."  What that secret was I didn't know until I wrote the chapter.  In both these examples, what I eventually wrote turned out to be "clincher" passages for the plot and meaning of the book.  And those passages function the way they do because I was guided by the characters, not vice versa; or, at least, I wasn't consciously, rationally or cerebrally guiding the story development.

Ultimately, that's my guess about where Gaarder went wrong: he experienced the phenomenon I've described, but he couldn't resist getting cerebral about it, and consequently the life he'd sparked on the page withered.  (He's aware that interference by the cerebellum in reflexive, irrational, creative processes -- like dancing -- is fatal; see the tortoise and centipede story on page 437.)  I can't blame Gaarder; philosophy is cerebral, overly so.  Philosophy is no more conducive to good story telling than physics

I'm not saying that a well-told novel about the history of philosophy is splitting the atom; but it's probably close.      

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