April 17, 2012

The Experiment

When I was a student I wondered if it was possible to do experiments with respect to philosophical topics. It seemed so cool that scientists could formulate hypotheses, structure experiments, and work step by step towards knowledge. An experiment suggested a democratic approach to knowledge: it is not the prestige of a thinker or her charisma which dictates what is true. It is the facts themselves, which are carefully accumulated to avoid biases of any kind. I felt this is the method of finding knowledge. And as a philosophy student, I wanted to find philosophical knowledge. And yet: what kind of an experiment could one do in philosophy?

I have finally found a form of experiment which is applicable to philosophy. It is to think of one's life itself as an experiment, and to use philosophy to explore new and interesting ways of life. In this blog I will think out loud about an experiment of this form I am engaged in. The blog will be a space to process my thoughts about it. And to discuss it with anyone who wishes to engage with me about it in the comments section. No background knowledge is required in order to talk about the issues addressed in this blog. It only requires the desire to think about life and to engage in conversation.

The Question

For sixteen years I was trained in professional, academic philosophy. Four years in undergrad, nine years in graduateschool and three years as a professor. This was for me a very beneficial period in which I learnt a lot and worked with good people.

During this time I learnt the trade of professional philosophy. This involved two things:

1. I learnt the manner of thinking which is taught in philosophy classrooms: questioning basic assumptions of life, analyzing arguments, articulating one's views, drawing connections between abstract viewpoints, etc.

2. I learnt the habits of being a professional philosopher: writing journal articles meant for fellow professionals, going to conferences, grading students' essays, applying for grants, etc.

During my initiation into the profession in graduate school, there was no distinction between (1) and (2). In my twenties when I was getting a graduate education, I was learning to think philosophically by learning the habits of being a professional philosopher. Like any graduate student I tried to improve my philosophical thinking by improving my ability to do the things professional philosophers do: by improving my dissertation, trying to get better at writing grants for funding, by aiming to get published, seeking to go to conferences. It felt as if the better I did at these activities the better I would be at philosophical thinking, and so the better I would be better as a philosopher.

It never occurred to me then that perhaps (1) and (2) can come apart. That maybe I could improve my philosophical thinking without worrying about the habits of professional philosophers.

A few years ago I started to wonder: What would happen if I used my ability to think philosophically completely independently of the habits of being a professional philosopher? What if I used my ability to think philosophically not to write for professional philosophers or to teach Plato and Russell to undergraduates, but to reflect on my life without the trappings of a profession? What if I took the energy I was expending on trying to publish or keep up with the latest journal articles (like any professional philosopher, I was expending a lot of energy on this), and instead used that energy to cultivate habits for improving myself as a human being? What would happen then?

If I did that, would I gain a kind of philosophical knowledge which perhaps I wasn't gaining as a professional philosopher? Could it be that philosophical thinking free of professional habits might lead to a kind of knowledge which maybe I wasn't learning or teaching in the classroom? Is there any such non-professional philosophical knowledge to be found?

The more I thought about this question, the more exciting it seemed.


My Working Hypotheses

A) It is possible to separate philosophical thinking from the habits of professional philosophy.

B) Philosophical thinking separated from the habits of professional philosophy can lead to philosophical knowledge which cannot be gotten through the profession.

C) In order to grow as a philosopher it is better to focus on the habits which everyone can acquire independent of their profession instead of the habits which only professional philosophers have the time and the structures to acquire.

These claims are hypotheses I have. I strongly believe them, and I am inclined to think they are true. But are they true? It is impossible to just sit and find an answer. Like with anything, one has to find a method for getting to the answer. An experiment can provide data to think about the questions and evaluate the hypotheses.

The Experiment

Would a person gain philosophical knowledge if he appliedphilosophical thinking to his life independently of the habits of professional philosophy?

The best way to answer this question is to try it out.

Leave professional philosophy. Find an alternate career which is rewarding and stimulating, and which involves totally different habits from those of professional philosophy. Gain the habits of the new career and let go of the habits of the old profession.

At the same time, keep on thinking philosophically. Continue to use the form of thinking learnt in the philosophy classrooms and apply it to the issues one confronts in the course of everyday life. Think about how Plato's view of the forms can help in looking for jobs. Wonder about how Spinoza's view of determinism relates to getting along with one's family and friends. Question if Nietzsche's view of the human evolution is correct, and what it might mean for multiculturalism in one's apartment building. Instead of worrying about reading everything about these and other philosophers, and instead of trying to become an expert on one of these philosophers, bring their views into contact with one's own habits and with one's own deepest beliefs. Don't get hung up on proving to others that you know philosophy. Focus on using philosophy to change yourself.

Do this for 1 year. 3 years. 10 years. For the rest of one's life. And see what happens. Would I gain new philosophical knowledge I might not have gotten in the classroom? Would the experiment give results I wasn't expecting? Would it have no interesting results? Is it possible to do the experiment with a positive attitude, or would it be emotionally and socially too hard? What obstacles might come up in the course of the experiment?

Do it. And see what happens.

This is what I am doing. I left my career as a professional philosopher and am seeking a career as an administrative assistant in an office setting. I love organizing and helping processes be more efficient, and it is fun to do that as my job. I want to cultivate the habits required of a full time desk job because I enjoy that kind of work, and because those habits are new for me; they are quite different from the habits I had as a professional philosopher. And I love thinking philosophically, so I will continue to do that.

What will it be like to practice philosophical thinking even when going through this change in habits? Will it produce philosophical knowledge of a kind I didn't have earlier? If I am not a professional philosopher and no longer read professional philosophy books or write in a professional way, does that mean I can't contribute to philosophical knowledge? Or will I be able to contribute in some new way that will become clear as the process unfolds? What will happen? What will my life look like down this path? That is the experiment.

Why It Matters

What is the greatest threat facing human beings? Nuclear war? Global warming? Over population?

I think none of these. These are obviously big problems. But perhaps people can work together to find a solution. However, what if people don't work together? What if they believe they can't work together with people they deeply disagree with? Then even if we could in principle find solutions to the above problems, that doesn't matter because we might not work together enough to find those solutions. In this way, the greatest threat to human beings is ourselves, and our own tendency towards rigidity.

To overcome this threat people have to cultivate flexible minds. When faced with the threat of drowning, it is necessary to learn swimming. When faced with the threat that we as a people might not work together enough with each other, it is necessary to learn how to become less rigid.

Philosophy, as I think of it, is the skill of having a flexible mind. It matters because it addresses the greatest threat we face as people--a rigid mind. Philosophy matters because it is the solution to a problem we are facing. It matters in the current world the way swimming matters to a drowning man.

If this is correct, what is the best way to help everyone learn the skill of philosophy? How can we enable all 7 billion people to learn this skill so that every person can have the ability to engage in flexible, rational, compassionate conversations with fellow human beings and with themselves?

One possible answer is: "make it possible for every person to take philosophy classes, and make it required. Just as everyone in school has to go to gym class, let's mandate that everyone in school take philosophy classes." This is the answer assumed in current professional philosophy. Naturally enough. Why should there be professional philosophers? Because they teach philosophy classes. And why do we need philosophy classes? Because that is where people can learn the skill of having a flexible mind.

There is a big problem with this view. The idea is that people take a philosophy class, learn philosophical thinking, and then cultivate that kind of thinking in their lives no matter what their profession, whether they are postmen or chefs or doctors or artists, etc. So the view assumes that the people taking the classes can distinguish between (a) philosophical thinking and (b) the habits of professional philosophers. For, after all, the view implies that in this way all 7 billion people can think philosophically even though obviously not all 7 billion people will become professional philosophers.

However, how can the people taking the classes make the distinction between (a) and (b) when in fact professional philosophers don't apply that distinction in their own lives? When in fact for the professional philosophers getting better at philosophical thinking and getting better at the habits of professional philosophers are deeply connected (as anyone who has ever worried about publishing or getting a philosophy job can attest)? If professional philosophers don't make this distinction in their own lives, how can they teach the students to make the distinction in theirlives? And if the students don't learn to make that distinction, how are they going to practice philosophy in their day to day activities?

Everyone needs to learn the skill of philosophy because everyone needs to have a flexible mind to cope with our contemporary problems. In order for everyone to learn philosophy, it must bepossible to separate philosophical thinking from the habits of professional philosophy. For most people are not going to be able to spend eight hours a day thinking, reading books and writing, and doing that as a way of making their income.

So, can philosophical thinking be separated from the habits of professional philosophy? If so, how? What would look it like to incorporate philosophy into one's life and to be good as a philosopher even though one doesn't read professional philosophy journals or go to academic conferences? These are the questions I am interested in. They matter because it matters how philosophy can become a truly universal skill which everyone can possess, and which everyone can excel at.

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