May 26, 2012

Philosophy in Public Spaces

A striking fact of non-academic life is how little philosophy comes up in one's interactions with other people. In my normal exchanges at work or at the shopping mall very rarely do philosophical topics come up in conversation. When sitting on a bus or walking down a street, there is hardly any sign that at one time Socrates or Plato existed, or that even in this century there was a Wittgenstein or a Dewey, or that even at this very time there are thousands of people pouring over philosophy texts seeking the deeper truths of life. In the normal course of life, everything seems so settled, as if the only task for each person is to get through the events of the day.

Of course, it is not that philosophical topics can't be found at every street corner or in every interaction with another person. Certainly they can be found. When looking at a Gap ad, one can wonder, "What concept of human excellence is being assumed here? Why do people find it natural to think that this is a form of excellence?" Or when seeing people packed like sardines into the subway, one might ask, "What is individual and what is communal in each person? How much can people be in control of their lives, and how much are they at the mercy of nature and society?" These strike me as completely natural questions, which arise from just looking at the world. And yet, try raising these questions with other people in the flow of everyday life. It is exceedingly hard. "What is the matter with you? It's just an ad. Get it together. Are you feeling ok?" Or: "Damn. We shouldn't have taken the subway in rush hour. Stop pontificating, and move further in!" The real difficulty isn't even that others will shoot down the philosophical questions. It is to even express it to another person. And even more: to hold on to it within oneself as something important and pressing and exciting.

This isn't because most people are stupid or disinterested in broad questions of human life. I think the reason for the paucity of philosophy in everyday life is that the world one engages with is now so diverse. Here is a European descended Christian. There an African descended Muslim. And here an atheist from Australia. And there an agnostic from Chile. And it is not just about countries. Or religions. Here is a person without many extended family ties, and who thinks of the world more in terms of friends than family. There another person who is defined by his family ties, and identifies with them deeply. Here is a person who loves sports. There a person who doesn't care about them at all. Here is someone who loves Hollywood movies. There someone who thinks that such movies are trivial. Etc. And etc. Society is now so diverse that there is no guarantee that one shares palpable deep values and commitments with most people one encounters.
Philosophy concerns abstract questions. But this doesn't mean that therefore one can talk about philosophy with anyone. As if since philosophy is abstract, conversations about it can bypass the ordinary norms of human bonds. To the contrary. Ironically, the very abstractness of the questions implies that they are best pursued with people with whom one has a certain kind of closeness fostered by shared habits: friends, colleagues, family, etc. One doesn't say to a stranger, "So, about the meaning of life..." More likely, one keeps quiet. Or else: "It's a nice day today", and so on. A philosophy conversation is a joint reflection on shared forms of life. When there is no palpable sense of a shared form of life between people, a philosophy conversation seems out of grasp. When it feels as if one can't even talk to a person about the weather, it is hard to talk about the nature of the self or freedom or the good life.

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