Today I begin teaching a new semester of Philosophy 111. As I sat last night contemplating what to talk about, I made these notes… and thought I would share them with you…
Philosophy is the “love of wisdom.” It comes from the Greek phílos (loving, dear) and sophia (skill, wisdom, knowledge). But when I began to read philosophy, it was not for the love of wisdom. I read from a trivial curiosity or, perhaps, a curiosity of what could be made trivial. It was a desire to know — not to understand — what “thinkers” thought. I was not reading to be taught, not to learn, I wanted only to wield those insights in conversation — to have the appearance of being smart. Of course, if I picked up something useful along the way, so much the better, but I remember that in those days the taste of philosophy wasn’t always pleasant – as you may already know wisdom is not always sweet, and it seldom satisfying. It is sometimes salty, sometimes bitter, sometimes spicy. It can be a mouthful of sand, and sometimes philosophy can taste like nothing at all.
Those were the days of lottery philosophy — hoping for a payoff without a big investment. Then, somehow, through an odd and fortuitous sequence of events, I ended-up a philosophy major in college. It was then I started to look to philosophy for answers. I didn’t expect a fully-formed set of instructions (this was not religion after all), but I hoped for answers that might strengthen my bearings in the world, give me a stable orientation, comfort. I hoped philosophy would teach me what sort of being a human was — and what sort of human being was Tyson Koska. In its accumulated wisdom, I hoped to find a metaphorical armchair, a comfy, fluffy spot to observe the world. But that isn’t what I found. I found a hole.
And the more I studied, the deeper the hole. The more I dug into the details of philosophy, the more it seemed to disconnect itself from the world — it seemed, almost, unwise in its microscopic attention to argumentative detail, to its all-consuming fervor over pinpoints of logic, rock-hard technicalities, and a few random/sandy metaphysical flourishes of thought — fact and feeling, reason and intuition, virtue, conviction, and passion. Wisdom is, if not infinitely deep, impossibly wide. You can get lost in those thoughts, in the dug-out caves of complex ideas, of insights both dirty and depressing… that is, until your spouse or child or parent calls to you from the next room, pulling your head out of that monumental idea and displacing it with the need to make dinner or take out the trash…
But let us say you keep digging, you dig so ridiculously deep and below anything seemingly real that you, at some point, probably unwittingly, pop out the other side. Let us say you dig yourself back into the sunshine. Now that is philosophy. What do you see in this new sun? Well, you see that dinner needs to be made and that the garbage needs taking out — that everything has, if only vanishingly significant, importance — it’s got its place. So too does the moment of your child’s first steps, or your grandmother’s funeral, or the day you fell, or will fall, in love. Everything is quite literally integral to everything. The daily detritus of living, the flashing moments of importance — the menial is lofty and the lofty is menial.
What you take from philosophy is up to you. You can get lost in the details and never emerge, you can disregard those same details as so much mental masturbation — or you can make careful observation and critical thinking a part of your life. What you do with the things you learn can be life-changing in importance. Will you say, “Oh yes, very interesting, that makes sense” and then go on believing whatever it was you believed before? Or will you let the implications of your knowledge become part of a new and expanded worldview?
What I have learned is that philosophy will not make you clever, and it certainly will not give you answers to live by — but it can make you comfortable in a world with so many competing and seemingly conflicting answers. Maybe it’s not the comfy, fluffy armchair I’d hoped for, but it can give you the tools to navigate, not just your intellectual, but your lived-world. As I have come often to reapeat: If life is an ocean, then philosophy is learning to swim.