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So today we started talking about the idea of the elusive “liberal arts education,” and exactly what that meant.  And people started talking about things like “building skills” and “learning a work ethic,” and I got slightly agitated, because—well, let me back up.

This was in class—actually the last day of class—in a philosophy course.   Over the course of one semester we had read Plato and Socrates (or…you know, Plato), brushed over some secondary literature, and spent a good deal of time reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics.  Now, with these in mind (especially his Ethics), we were thinking about how this class (or, more specifically, how Aristotle) affects our lives after the course is over.  Which is now.

The customary apologetic defense of philosophy was offered: that philosophy doesn’t actually help your life directly, but that reading philosophy builds skills and shit, and makes you a better logical thinker, and all of that rubbish.  Which is all completely true, but that’s pretty much like saying “I go to lifeguard training so that I can learn how to swim.”

YOU CAN LEARN TO SWIM VERY EASILY. IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE.

SIMILARLY, ANALYTICAL THINKING IS NOT VERY DIFFICULT.  It’s a skill, and you can train a skill by doing other things beside philosophy.

So what does this mean, then? Does it mean that philosophy is not useful?  WHAT THE HELL IS MY POINT?

Well, what exactly is “useful?” We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.  The great philosophers—especially the ancients, the ones who hover outside of the analytical tradition—don’t just talk about one sphere of life.  They talk about all of life.  When they talk about one thing, they do it by talking about everything, because they have a concise view of everything that can be easily used to explain just one thing.  I believe Chesterton wrote some words on this subject, but since he already said them, there’s not much point in me waxing eloquent here.

THE POINT I’M TRYING TO MAKE IS: you can apply Aristotle directly to your life, straight away.  You must apply Aristotle directly, consciously or unconsciously, if you live a productive life, because Aristotle’s theory encompasses what happens when you live a productive life, and thus if you live a productive life you can explain that in terms of Aristotle’s theory.

Apply directly to the forehead!

LET ME BACK UP HERE AND EXPLAIN.  Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is possibly one of the more famous and influential works ever written by anyone ever.  It can be quite literally said to be the foundation of Western conceptions of morality and a pillar of philosophy in general.

What is the Ethics about? It is about ethics.  About making the choices of your life.  It is a book written for the education of young adults, with the intention of teaching them not to be so goddamn stupid all the damn time and showing them how to not fail at life.  And if you read it that way—if you listen to what Aristotle says and think about how you can apply that to your own life—then you get a whole hell of a lot more out of the book than just learning to “think critically,” FFS.

There is this banausic trend in the west to ask “what good is this?” as if every bit of knowledge learned had to be a new cog in a mechanical man.   A paragon of this trend is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes, who you may remember was retroactively inspired by the BBC miniseries of the same name.

We might not remember, and by ‘we’ I mean ‘you’ because I read the book, thanks very much, but Sherlock Holmes was the penultimate scientist and a terrifyingly mechanical thinker.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic,” Sherlock says, in A Study In Scarlet (our introduction to Sherlock Holmes) “And you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.”

“Now pass me a credit card, Watson, it’s time for me to do my morning line.”

In contrast to the average man, Sherlock proudly says that his attic is in the very best of order, that he takes into his mind only those facts and theories which can help him in his daily life.  When we first are introduced to him, he has not even been bothered to learn that the earth revolves around the sun (oh, for the days when you could avoid learning that!), and when he is told this fact he promises to forget it as promptly as possible.

Sherlock Holmes is problematic.

This man operates only on what he can know for certainty, and knows nothing outside of his field.  He is mechanical, scientific in the extreme, highly specialized.  He can provide a citation and a justification for everything.

So why am I talking about Aristotle and Sherlock Holmes in the same post?  Because there is an upsetting push toward the ideal of Sherlock Holmes—toward the ideal of the consummate scientist, in every field.  Everything is being reduced to a science, to a formula, to a specialization.  For psychology it is already looking grim—for anthropology some hope remains.  Anthropology gets it—because anthropology can never be an objective science again.  The question has already been asked “what is objectivity?” and with that we plunge off the precipice, never to look back, because NOTHING IS OBJECTIVE.  Anthropology gets it in a way that few other sciences really do.  Try bringing up “nothing is objective” with a biochem major.

Even philosophy has become scientific.

Analytical philosophy has risen in the west like a Barad-Dur of tinker toys—intimidating, needlessly complex, and unassailable.  It is the process of jumping through hoops with logic for the purpose of reaching a conclusion on a specific subject—for example, the ethics of war, or of abortion, or of assisted suicide.  These conclusions are supported by citations, links to things which have already been proven, and they are mostly applicable—although a number of these conclusions in turn have points at which they break down.

Why do we seek these conclusions?  Why answer such specific questions? So that when we have a solution we can declare a question answered and move on? Are we then building a comprehensive theory of the world even in philosophy?  Why do these conclusions break down?

Like Chesterton, I stress the importance of a worldview.  But a worldview cannot be specific, because every specific theory breaks down at a certain level of detail. The world is not our theory, and our theory is not the world.  Sometimes we forget that fact—that modern science and the entire intellectual basis of Western knowledge is a massive construct built to model reality.  Theory is not reality itself, and thus, as Hume also points out, we can’t actually ever be sure that our experiment will go as predicted, because they universe doesn’t run on zeros and ones.

Aristotle gives us detail, and a lot of his details are wrong, yes, but we can forgive him that, because through and around that detail run sweeping generalizations as broad as rivers.  His warning in the beginning of the Ethics should be written in stone.

“Our discussion will be adequate if it achieves clarity within the limits of the subject matter.  For precision cannot be expected in the treatment of all subjects alike, any more than it can be expected in all manufactured articles.  Problems of what is noble and just, which politics examines, present so much variety and irregularity that some people believe that they exist only by convention and not by nature.  The problem of the good, too, presents a similar kind of irregularity, because in many cases good things bring harmful results.  There are instances of men ruined by wealth, and others by courage.  Therefore, in a discussion of such subjects, which has to start from a basis of this kind, we must be satisfied to indicate the truth with a rough and general sketch: when the subject and the basis of a discussion consist of matters that hold good only as a general rule, but not always, the conclusions reached must be of the same order.  The various points that are made must be received in the same spirit.  For a well-schooled man is one who searches for that degree of precision in each kind of study which the nature of the subject at hand admits: it is obviously just as foolish to accept arguments of probability from a mathematician as to demand strict demonstrations from an orator.”

“Now calm yourselves the hell down and let me finish my goddamn lecture.”

My philosophy teacher used to complain because people would ask her stupid questions when they learned she was getting a Ph.D.  Apparently at least one person asked her “What’s your philosophy?”

Which is hilarious because let’s be honest, that’s a REALLY DUMB QUESTION.

But in a way…it’s also not, because in my not-so-humble opinion philosophy is not just about logic.  It’s not just about thinking analytically and understanding when someone is making a stupid-ass argument based on logical fallacies.

Reading philosophy is about having a philosophy.  It’s about reading Sartre and hating him and then UNDERSTANDING WHY.  It’s about reading Aristotle and loving his ethics and hating his weird treatment of slaves and understanding WHY.  It’s about taking that understanding of WHY things agree with you and internalizing it, of developing the practical ability to recognize what fits into your worldview and what doesn’t, cultivating that phronēsis to the point where you have a coherent, functional view of the world.

So what do I take away from a philosophy class? Yeah, I take away analytical skills and all that bullshit, but that’s sure as hell not why I took the class.  I take philosophy to understand my way of being-in-the-world.  And what I take away from Aristotle’s Ethics isn’t “an understanding of the framework of modern ethics in the western world,” it’s a knowledge of the fact that I agree with Aristotle in many points—including his definition of virtue:

Action.

With.

Intention.

And THAT is something I can (and will) use, every day of my life.

“Word.”

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2 Comments

  1. Great post!!!

  2. Aristotle in science (mathematics, physics etc) and social sciences was culture-bound. In metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, rational psychology and especially cosmology, the Scholar focused with a laser-beam and found the universal which holds up today. He is the normative weltanschauung which creates the optics for a critical lens. Good work!
    Do more Aristotle….


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