Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Dabbling in Philosophy

I'm an amateur philosopher--at best. Dabbler is more like it. Like almost every other person who has earned degrees in English, I dipped into philosophy as important background to and context of literature, and I took a two-semester "History of Philosophy" course--but philosophers tend not to like such courses because (so the argument goes) they are more of a tour of ideas than a course in "doing" philosophy. Getting ready for written doctoral exams in 18th & 19th century British literature and Modern British & American poetry, I also read some philosophy, but mostly in connection with specific literary works, poets, and novelists, and not all that systematically.

Having established the absence of preparation and credentials, then, I shall proceed to provide details that will further liquefy, if not atomize, my status in this regard.

My favorite philosopher is Spinoza. I've been reading him (his work) ever since I took that history of philosophy course, and I plunged into Ethics again about a year ago. --Not exactly light reading. But the line of argument is elegant, and the thinking is cool, as in chilly. God is the substance, goes one part of the argument, and everything else (pieces of reality large and small) comprises attributes of God. Evil springs from human misguidedness and mis-perception, not from Satan.

The poet in me likes the fact that Spinoza earned his living as a lens-grinder in the Netherlands, where his Jewish community excommunicated him. Later, a colleague encouraged him to become a Catholic. Unfortunately, the colleague's argument (I take great liberties with the paraphrasing here) was something like "all the popular people in Europe are converting to Catholicism!" Spinoza politely told the fellow that when he (the friend) came to his senses, he would know how ridiculous the invitation and the argument were.

Stuart Hampshire's work on Spinoza has been quite good at getting me as close to understanding Spinoza as I'll ever get. Spinoza has tended to get mis-used quite a bit. The 19th century, for example, wanted to turn him into a mystical pantheist, but that wasn't his argument at all. ("That is not it at all," to quote Eliot.)

Aristotle's my second favorite philosopher, although I know his non-philosophical work better: his writing on poetics (especially on tragedy, of course) and the timeless On Rhetoric. As long as I can remember, I've always preferred his work to Plato's. If Ari were alive today, he'd probably be a scientist or a social scientist, for he was the great empiricist. He seems to have been interested in everything and capable of taking apart everything and having a look. The world was data; data were the world. Even the guesses he made that turned out all wrong were very good hypotheses, even the crystal-sphere stuff.

Hume I love, too. He seems to have taken great joy in disrupting arguments and explaining how the logical connections people thought they were making were neither logical nor connections. --A latter-day Zeno, in my opinion.

I have to give Descartes his props. He came up with the greatest "hook" in philosophy, after all--and kept it to three words. And his thinking certainly swept Europe by storm.

Wittgenstein is fascinating, especially his evolution--going from mocking any "philosophy" that wasn't essentially phrased mathematically to embracing (or at least this is how I misinterpret it) something akin to rhetoric, wherein premises and definitions can function even as we acknowledge that they're contingent or constructed. The book about the famous (and famously mis-remembered or multiply remembered) "poker" episode with Popper, Ludwig, and Bertie Russell is entertaining.

I wish I liked Plato more, but I don't feel quite so bad after having read a biography of A.E. Housman (classical scholar), who read Plato as an undergraduate, decided what Plato had to say was a useless way of explaining the world, and never changed his mind.

I always found it ironic that Plato wanted to expel poets from his utopian kingdom because I see him primarily as a dramatist, a writer of little plays in which Socrates is the hero and, like professional wrestling champions, always "wins" the rigged contests. And the parable of the caves is lovely poetry. I enjoyed I.F. Stone's book on Socrates, especially how Stone criticizes Socrates without defending the death-sentence given him, even if Socrates had the choice of leaving the city rather than facing death.

And how cool is it that Aristotle and Plato just had one name--just like some celebrities nowadays? "The Philosopher formerly known as 'Plato.'"

Among the legion of philosophers whose work I never "got" are Leibniz and Kant. Or maybe I did "get" part of Kant and just didn't think it went anywhere. He seems to want to deny reality--but not really. He seems to waffle (a technical term in philosophy). Without a doubt, I grossly oversimplify when I remark that "the categorical imperative" seems like a very ornate version of the golden rule. When I got to the "monads" in Leibniz, I started laughing, and I apologize--for that for thinking that Berkeley is Plato Redux.

It's hard to overestimate Hegel's revolutionary (so to speak) ideas about history, but damn, his work is often impenetrable (to me, a mere poet, critic, and dabbler).

I could never quite connect with Nietzsche's work, either. I probably just needed a better philosophy professor--a better or more systematic introduction to his work. Or maybe I just imbibed too much of Aristotle-on-hubris to be anything other than suspicious about what appears to be the glorification of the will. What we think of as "the will" seems like something useful selected by evolution; it provides persistence and focus, among other things. But does it provide a worthy basis for understanding the world fully, for doing well and doing good? I don't know. But then Nietzsche wanted to move past good and evil--so there's that. I need to give Nietzsche at least one more try. This time maybe I'll confer with a Nietzsche-expert who happens to work on the same corridor as I.

I reckon the stuff I've read on Zen Buddhism doesn't really qualify as philosophy--or does it? Zen Buddhism seems to me to have anticipated almost all of Existentialism, but I'd wager there are some strong counter-arguments to that position. Anyway, my favorite Zen writer is Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.

Certainly St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are more properly classified as theologians than as philosophers, but it is fascinating to watch their minds work as they reason on behalf of God and Christianity. When I read them, I feel as if I'm wandering around in a forest, not lost, by any means, but also not going in a straight line, the way one does with Descartes, say.

If he were alive, Spinoza wouldn't care that I became a Catholic several years ago because he wouldn't know or care who I was--I, a trivial micro-attribute. How to reconcile my great interest in Baruch's work with my Catholicism is an interesting problem--but also above my pay-grade.

Now that I have defamed several philosophers, my work is done here. Goodnight Baruch, wherever you are; by definition, you are with God--or is it of--God?
Post a Comment