Sunday, March 23, 2014

American Anti-Philosophy and What We Can Do to Fight It

There is something deeply disturbing about the Hunger Games phenomenon, and it goes beyond the grotesqueness of the violence. What has bothered me most about it -- and the movies, board games, and licensed merchandise haven't helped -- is that it is a action-adventure thriller about children killing children that children are supposed to read that is supposed to constitute a critique of our society's tendency to desensitize itself to violence.

It's hypocritical. You don't criticize the glorification of violence in a culture by coming up with the most disturbing form of violence you can and glorifying it. What you should do is write a satire. But for a satire to be effective it must constitute a philosophical argument, and be funny. A true satire of the glorification of violence, in the spirit of Voltaire's Candide or Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, might go something like this:

On her way home from seeing Hunger Games II in the theater, Heroine is accidentally shoved in a cryogenic freezer to find herself waking up a few decades later to an interesting new America, where the Hollywood entertainment industry has become so disgustingly wealthy on its action-horror-adventure bloodbaths, that it has successfully lobbied Congress to legalize the fight-to-the-death of underprivileged children who are going to starve to death anyway, and give a fraction of the money made from this TV show to the District where the winning child came from, and justify it by saying "Hey, before you had twelve children who were going to die, but we're going to make sure one of them lives and becomes wealthy to boot." Since Heroine's family is long dead, she is an orphan and considered poor and ends up in the games, and now regrets ever having bought that movie ticket to Hunger Games II that helped bring these bastards to power.

That's, more or less, what a satire of our culture's glorification of violence should look like.

We Americans have forgotten how to think deeply about things. I could multiply examples of this, citing Tarantino's Oscars, the banality of higher education, or the decline of academic philosophy itself. But things are still worse than this: we have become -- not just non-philosophical -- but anti-philosophical.

Take the so-called Culture Wars, the supposed fight to the death between science and religion over things like prayer in school and evolution. The fight over evolution is particularly interesting. In most cases you've got a Christian on one hand saying, "Look, I just don't see how something so complex could come about by chance," and an atheist on the other saying, "There's mountains of evidence for it, this is a stupid debate, and I'm going home."

Hold on a second. First of all, the question of how complex adaptations came about by variation and natural selection was exactly the question Charles Darwin set out to answer in a 502-page book called On the Origin of Species. These debates really should go something like this:

"Look, I just don't see how something so complex could come about by chance."

"Fantastic! I have just the book for you. Have you read Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species?"

"Well, actually I have."

"Really, that's awesome! Just where did his argument seem to go wrong."

"Well, on page 230 he argues . . ."

Ah. Music to my ears. I have never in my life heard an evolution debate go anything like that, and it's because we've become anti-philosophers who say things like, "This debate is stupid, creationists are idiots." No, they're asking questions. They're doubting. Many brilliant evolutionary theorists became so because they started out as curious creationists. People born atheists rarely take the time learn the ins and outs of Darwin's theory because they've never had occasion to doubt it in the first place. Disagreements are opportunities for both parties to learn. Most of what I know about evolution comes from one of three periods in my life:

(1) When I was making the transition from creationist to evolutionist personally.
(2) When I was debating evolution with creationists and actually took the time to read some creationist literature.
(3) When I was trying to decide among alternate theories of evolution. [Note: scientists don't like people to think that evolutionary theory is still being developed, but like any good theory, it is.]

Everything that I've learned about evolution, or about anything for that matter, has only come when I have taken the time to doubt. And the art of doubting is dying in our culture (though I sometimes wonder if it's ever really thrived on American soil).

I can prove beyond a doubt that America is the most anti-philosophical civilization ever to reach any prominence. (Rome would beat us out for that title, but for two names: Cicero, St. Augustine.) Here's how: the most highly regarded American philosophers are Henry James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey. Each of these philosophers described themselves as Pragmatists (though both Pierce and James had their qualms about what the term came to mean), and in fact they gave rise to the most influential American school of philosophy -- Pragmatism. This is the view that philosophy should jettison any thought, belief, or idea that has no practical use.

The pragmatic method is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable. Is the world one or many?--fated or free?--material or spiritual?--here are notions either of which may or may not hold good of the world; and disputes over such notions are unending. The pragmatic method in such cases is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences. What difference would it practically make to anyone if this notion rather than that notion were true? If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle. (Henry James, "Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking.")

Philosophy is about how to live your life in the most meaningful way possible. "What is the meaning of life?" is the perennial philosophical question, and it has occupied every great philosopher from Confucius to Emerson. By "meaning" I don't mean the definition of words. I mean meaningfulness, as in ultimate purpose or highest good.

Practical utility is the opposite of meaning. The most useful things in WWII were planes, tanks, and guns, and the factories that made them. But planes, tanks, and guns weren't the meaning of the war. The meaning of the war had to do with freedom, power, and sacrifice. It had to do with our deepest values.

Henry James was actually a fairly deep philosopher, and would have granted that the pragmatic method isn't really applicable to questions of the highest good. The problem is not that his thinking was wrong, but that he failed to give it a cohesive form beyond the notion of pragmatism, and this crippled later incarnations of his philosophy. (The problem of passing down philosophical knowledge is a deep and important one that needs more attention.) But if you ask a contemporary pragmatist about the "highest good" I guarantee they will answer something like, "I have no need for such an hypothesis." That was pretty much what happened to me studying for my Ph.D. in Philosophy. I asked Socrates' favorite question and got a blank stare. That's why I decided to quit with my Masters and do a little thinking on my own.

Anyway, my point is: even our philosophers are anti-philosophers in this country.


This blog post is a call to action. It's a call to philosophy. And philosophy is not pragmatism; it's not the dismissal of all impractical questions. It's actually the opposite of that; it's the embrace of the most impractical question of all:

How do I live my life in the most meaningful way possible?

This question has led people to do very impractical things: quit school, quit their job, spend hours a day staring off into space. I speak from experience, because I've done all these impractical things and more in my own personal pursuit of this question.

Most contemporary Americans that call themselves philosophers are a special kind of philosopher called an "analytic" philosopher. There's nothing wrong with being an analytic philosopher. They are experts in analyzing language, definitions, and scientific methods. But an analytic philosopher is usually not really a philosopher. They don't care to apply their insights to the question: "How do I live my life?" Their insights are applied to scientific practice, psychology, linguistics, and legal theory. Analytic philosophy is largely irrelevant to the task of traditional philosophy. Worse that this, it causes all kinds of confusion when we send our young men and women off to college to learn the meaning of life, and they come back spouting logical technicalities.

Again, logical technicalities are fine and good, but they are not the meaning of life. To think that they are is another example of American Anti-Philosophy. It's like thinking that guns and bombs are the meaning of war.

Here's another example. Many an art film has run off into an abyss of meaninglessness because it is hip to think that "Life doesn't really have a meaning." You know, the American Beauty kind of meaninglessness. (Incidentally, if you watch the American Beauty DVD with commentary you will get a few hours of the director saying things like, "I used rose petals in this scene because I like rose petals.") Nihilism is hip, and a movie with a moral has a tendency to anger critics, because critics, more than anyone, hate to doubt what they think they already know. A good example of this is Avatar: critics hate the plot because there's good and evil and the good guys win. I think the public can actually be trusted more on this one: people love it because in the real world whenever big corporations chasing a profit have teamed up with a cynical military you get a hell of an evil villain. And in the recent past it's usually been us, America. The success of Avatar proves that most Americans do have a philosopher deep inside that craves doubt. We want to doubt that our way of life is the best, and the deepest movies are the ones that give us an excuse to do this.

Imagine that you've got a prosperous kingdom, so wealthy from trade that the king decides that the kingdom can afford to have ten kings. So he hires on ten more kings, and they all live the luxurious kingly life. Since the kingly duties are split, it gives all these kings more time for philosophy, art, and science. This causes their science to advance quickly, and they discover how to breed a new kind of hay that makes the horses of the kingdom run extremely fast. They send these horses off to every corner of the world to trade, and bring back even more knowledge and more wealth. And now the kingdom can afford to have a hundred kings. You see where this is going? More knowledge, more power, until finally you have an entire kingdom where almost everyone is a king or queen.

Now in this kingdom, because they've got such fast horses, their food can be grown in other kingdoms and shipped in. So you've got kings and queens who are born and die and never in their lives see the peasants that support them. Can you imagine how complacent such a culture would get? How inane their philosophy? How empty their entertainment? You've even got some kings who imagine that, one day, everyone in the world will be made a king, and suffering will be over forever. Of course, these kings are forgetting that 95% of the world is peasants, and this percentage has never really changed.

If you haven't caught on, I've just described the history of America (and of Europe, and Rome, and every high civilization ever). Maybe it should be obvious why very few civilizations ever manage to produce any interesting philosophy. Europe did, because it rose from the ashes of Rome. Rome did, because it imitated Greece. Greece did, I suppose, because it had Socrates.

Socrates did not care for riches or fame. He didn't care much for science or poetry. Even better, he did not care to flatter the priests or politicians in power. The was one thing that he philosophized about, and one thing only, and that was the individual human heart and its relationship to the Good. His philosophy has survived a dozen dark ages of war and poverty because it does not glorify high civilization -- it glorifies the individual.

What do American philosophers want to do? They want to disprove religion, or prove religion. They want to feed the world, cure poverty, cure cancer. All of these goals presuppose that the culture of kings that we live it will reign forever and everyone will become a king. All of these goals glorify high civilization. And high civilization is a collective, it is not an individual.

When our civilization finally collapses (and all civilizations are mortal), democracy will pass away, welfare will pass away, medical science will pass away, and our wealthy cynicism will pass away. If people remember anything that our philosophers say, it will be the things that strengthen the individual human heart.

When Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens by asking too many questions, and threatened with execution, he did not run away. He stood his ground, and continued to doubt, question, and argue until the moment he was put to death. I know of no philosopher who has ever shown greater intellectual courage (unless we count Jesus as a philosopher, and maybe we should). It is no wonder that for over 2,000 years Socrates has set the standard for rationality.

If America wants to accomplish anything lasting in the realm of thought, we need to take our cue from the Greeks.

The Greeks saw philosophy as an art. You find a master and become an apprentice. Plato was Socrates' apprentice, and Aristotle was Plato's apprentice. The art of thinking can be taught, and it must be taught well if we are to give rise to any lasting sort of tradition.

Given that we are not yet teaching philosophy well in this country, what do we need to do?


I have no doubt that all the successful intellectuals, writers, and professors in America have a working theory of rationality that they use when they think about things. But of all the dozens of such thinkers I've met in my life, not one has really cared to teach it. I understand why. Teaching takes work, it takes planning and time, and you have to find the right students. And if you wanted to teach your entire system of rationality you would first have to work out what that theory is, and it's surprisingly hard to uncover your own methods of thought. (Try it: next time you think about something complex, go back and try working out every rational step in your reasoning. Even if you've been trained philosophically, it's hard, and you'll usually end up with gaps.)

We need to go back to the Greek idea that philosophy should be broken down into a teachable craft, like jewelry-making or Buddhism. The main problem, though, is lack of teachers. So until someone starts an academy, the only way for us to learn is by reading.

By reading I do not mean academic textbooks. Precious few textbooks are written from the heart, and fewer still will pass the test of time. Alas, the same goes for popular philosophy bestsellers. Now if only there were some way to take a time machine in to the far future and see which books they'll be reading in 2,000 years . . . Hold on a second, that gives me an idea! Why don't we just read the textbooks from 2,000 years ago that have survived to today? The Greeks, Romans, and Chinese wrote countless textbooks on philosophy, haven't we yet determined which of those were best?

We have, and here's the list:

1) Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu
2) The Confucian Analects
3) Plato's Dialogues
4) Aristotle
5) St. Augustine

As far as teaching one how to think philosophically, the most well-rounded of these is Aristotle. He covers everything from logic, to tragedy, to ethics, to politics. If you want to learn how to think, start with him. But don't be fooled into thinking that Aristotle will be fun -- he is actually the most boring of the five. At one point in college I remember resolving to read Aristotle straight through. It was so dry I didn't get through three pages. It wasn't until grad school that I managed to read most of Aristotle's works, and only because I had the time and motivation.

This brings me to the next essential thing that is needed if American philosophy is to thrive: motivation. You must crave the truth. And nothing will ignite this passion more than a healthy dose of doubt.

Before there can be philosophy, there must be doubt. If you do not truly doubt -- your religion, your science, your art, your spirituality -- you cannot fix any of these things. To fix something you must take it apart. To take a belief apart is to doubt it. "How do I know this is true?" "What if this isn't true?" etc. If you do not doubt deeply enough, you will produce ideas that merely confirm what everybody already knows. Books like that are unhealthy. If you need some help doubting, seek out the master doubters in recent times. Read Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, read all of Emerson, read Wittgenstein's Investigations.

Start with doubt. Move on to reason, but always keep your highest values and goals in mind. Find the answer. Once you have the truth, learn to express it clearly.

When you find yourself doubting enough that you crave meaning, seek out the masters of building belief back up again. (If you do not build back up, you risk becoming one of those artsy movie directors that don't know how to reassemble their story, or Continental Philosophers who can't form a cohesive argument to save their lives, or postmodernist literati that drift way in a sea of ennui and unjustified snobbery -- you get the point.) The masters of re-constructing belief are, as far as I'm concerned: Aristotle and St. Augustine.

Proper philosophical thought takes time and effort. You must go all out, no holds barred. Meditate. Read. Find quiet time every day. Think. Suffer. Feel your problem. Give yourself weeks, months, years if needed. Be tough-minded. Stand up to critics. Do not back down from an argument you believe in, but always be willing to lose an argument if you are wrong.

Strive for a goal or an end in your thinking. Find answers to your questions or show why they are not answerable or not important.

Once you've found your answer, come back to reality. Find a way to show people what you've found. This is often the most difficult step. Express your insight so that they can actually make use of it in their lives. Create something -- Art, Science, Religion, Literature -- that will make individuals into better individuals.


  1. Sam: this is a wonderfully rich post and indicates that you take after the great philosophers....I resonate deeply with this: Start with doubt. Move on to reason, but always keep your highest values and goals in mind. Find the answer. Once you have the truth, learn to express it clearly.

    That is what I am doing with my life right now -- you hit the nail on the head -- and it ain't easy -- the fat lady sings in the trees outside and sometimes i shiver.

    All good things to you -- Mira

  2. Thanks for the kind comments! I've gotten a lot of valuable and eloquent feedback on this post, by email and otherwise.