Monday, December 19, 2011

On the doorstep of philosophy

In his classic concert film Bill Cosby: Himself, the storytelling comedian talks about the natural childbirth of his and his wife’s first daughter, Erika.  Cosby, who has an earned doctorate in education, sets up this story with the wry observation, “Now, we were Intellectuals, mind you … Intellectuals go to class to study things that people do naturally.”

This line popped into my brain after an exchange I had on eChurch Blog with “Simian”, an agnostic to whom I was introduced by Stacy Trasancos and who pops up on Accepting Abundance now and then.  Stuart James’ post was on the need of an objective reality by which we can define sanity; to cut this post to size, I’ll just say that Simian has been playing … er, devil’s advocate. 

In his response to me, Simian’s last lines were, “If we are looking for an external validation of our sanity we surely need look no further than other people around us. Why do we need more?”  More out of mischief than anything else, I replied, “Are the people around you sane by definition?”

Strange as it may seem, that’s the kind of question a philosopher asks in full earnest.  You’re at the doorstep of philosophy when you start to ask questions about ideas and facts that people take for granted.

When most people talk about their “philosophy”, they usually refer to a bag of maxims, sentiments, political catch-phrases and bumper-sticker witticisms they like and with which they agree, with the occasional dogmatic definition thrown in for Sunday dinner.  Moreover, they say “philosophy” when they mean “opinion”, often modified with the unnecessary adjective “personal” or the misleading modifier “subjective” (by which they mean not only “personal” but “as likely to be wrong as right”).  

I’m not too far beyond this point myself. Although I sometimes define myself as “an Adler Aristotelian with a touch of Jamesian pragmatic”, I’m probably better described as “a dilettante slacker pretending to be a Renaissance man”.

One of the reasons I enjoy what I’ve read of G. K. Chesterton — and why I find myself quoting him so much — is because he had sophistication enough to write simply and clearly.  In “Masters of Babble”, English literature professor James P. Degnan described a condition he called “straight-A illiteracy”:

The major cause … is the stuff the straight-A illiterate is forced to read during his years of higher education.  He learns to write gibberish by reading it, and by being taught to admire it.  He must grapple with such journals as the American Sociological Review, journals bulging with barbarous jargon, such as “ego-integrative action orientation.”  In such journals, two things are never described as being “alike.” They are “homologous” or “isomorphic.”  Nor are things simply “different.”  They are “allotropic.”  In such journals, writers never “divide” anything. They “dichotomize” or “bifurcate.”[1]

Philosophy too has its “inside language” which the would-be specialist must master, and which often uses common words in uncommon senses.  Because of this, many philosophers are victims of “straight-A illiteracy” too, grunting out jargon-loaded phrase after jargon-loaded phrase to produce steaming piles of Deep Thought; you must occasionally wonder whether the authors themselves understood what they wrote.

Chesterton, by contrast, had the knack of boiling out the jargon, returning us to our common, everyday senses and experiences, and affirming their reality. Unlike Ayn Rand, Chesterton never mistook a maxim or a proposition for a first principle. Rather, he gave us permission to take some things for granted by showing the result when you affirm their opposites; contrary to his contemporaries’ claim, he didn’t specialize in creating paradoxes so much as he mastered the use of the reductio ad absurdum.[*] 

Or, to use his way of speaking: By standing things on their heads, he showed us why they belonged on their feet, and demonstrated that many of his contemporaries’ ideas — many of which are not only still with us today but celebrated as higher wisdom — were common sense turned upside-down.

While my question to Simian was born of an impish impulse, it was also a jab at subjectivism.  How do you know you’re sane just by looking at the people around you?   The  sociopath scorns the paranoiac’s delusions; the serial killer has nothing but contempt for the pathetic illusions by which his victims live.  We all begin by begging the existence of an objective reality, and that we perceive it, even in the midst of our fantasies and nightmares.  The most lucid and logical exponent of subjectivism can’t help appealing to objective reality all the while he’s busy denying it; when he says, “There is no ‘Way Things Really Are,’” he affirms that that is the Way Things Really Are.  He takes for granted the very reality he doubts.

H. L. Mencken once wrote that, in his opinion, Henry James could have been improved as a writer by one good whiff of the Chicago stockyards.  While I can’t express more than perfunctory admiration for the acerbic wit of the “American Nietzsche” —  since the original died in an asylum, the title qualifies as damning with faint praise — Mencken’s assessment could well be said of many people among the intelligentsia, who write hundreds of turgid pages to prove theories that would be disproven by their own lives, were they but to open their eyes, close their mouths and jettison their self-esteem.

There really is a reality.  We know this every time we hold a hand, scratch an itch, step in a puddle or punch a nose; we know this with every joke we tell, every hamburger we eat, every heart we break, every friend we lose.  Every whiff we take of the stockyards.

We can take it for granted.  It’s just common sense.


[*] In formal logic, a reductio proves a conclusion (p) by assuming its opposite (not-p) as an additional premiss and deriving a contradiction (q and not-q); it’s also called an indirect proof.


[1] Degnan, James P. (1976, September). Harper’s Magazine, pp. 37-39.