Philosophy Defined

A friend of mine asked me to explain what "dialectics" means.  Many, many paragraphs later, I realized I had not begun to even answer the question.  Oops.

Well, what about this?  Maybe dialectics is the same as philosophy.  Oh, I know, I'll get some angry letters about that.

And then the question becomes: what is philosophy?  Eventually everybody comes around to taking a stab at answering that question.  And they usually produce very boring, awful books, like Deleuze & Guattari's "What is Philosophy?"  Yecchhh.

I can't help it.  I'm going to be one of those boring people.  Okay!  My definition of philosophy.  Ready?  Here goes:

Philosophy is whatever I find interesting.

Note: philosophy is not whatever anyone finds interesting.   It's not what you find interesting.  It's only what I find interesting.... and, I suppose, people like me.

But, you say, that's cheating!  It's too nebulous, and subjective, and based on emotion or feeling or desire or preference or aesthetics to be a real definition.

I reply: but philosophy has always been nothing but a feeling - specifically, love.  Philosophy quite literally means the "love of wisdom."  Philosophers are defined as lovers.  A philosopher is not defined as a professional who is paid by a philosophy department, or anyone else, to do a specialized kind of work known as philosophy - in fact, Plato specifically denies that definition.  A philosopher is more like a fan - a diehard fan - as long as we expand that abbreviation and say that a philosopher is a kind of fanatic, and philosophy is a kind of fanaticism, mania, amour fou.  Philosophy is what those kinds of people find interesting.

But what is wisdom?  It's that which philosophers love.  The wisdom of philosophers is a wisdom that is defined in and through love.  Not only is philosophy a matter of taste.  Philosophy is a matter of taste that can only be defined in the following way: philosophy is TWWD: that which we do - our little subculture.

(Note that I am not a professional philosophy professor in a philosophy department at a university.  Most of those people, according to my definition, are not philosophers.)

Isn't that a circular definition?  Yes, it is.  (Philosophy is a matter of finding oneself trapped in the hermeneutic circle, pffff ha ha ha.)

If you want to be a philosopher, it's a two step process.  First, find a philosopher.  Then, love the way she loves. (Socrates found Diotima....)

Notice: it's not a question of you loving her.  Nor of her loving you.  Philosophy is not a club.  She doesn't even need to know that you exist.

And it's not necessary to love what she loves.  You can love completely different things, as long as you love what you love the way that she loves what she loves.

And, of course.... I've made it sound a bit more simple than it really is.  It's not like you can decide to love the way she loves.  You either love, or you don't.  When I said that it's a two-step process, I didn't mean to imply that these steps happen sequentially, in time.  They are simultaneous - or, more properly speaking, there is no beginning... you find that you always already loved the way she loves.  Philosophy is a bit like coming out of the closet.

In a certain sense, then, I wonder if perhaps philosophy is something you are born with.  But when I say that, I don't mean that it's a matter of being smart, of having a high IQ, of genius, or of any kind of special, elite ability.  It's just a kind of desire that some people have, a preference that people are born with, no matter how smart or stupid they may be.  A preference.  Just because you are born with this desire does not mean that the desire will be fulfilled.  Kant used to say that his love of metaphysics was unrequited.

In fact, I would say that philosophy is a kind of stupidity.  It's like a birth defect.  There's something wrong with us, and this thing that is wrong in us is all tied up in our desire.  It's almost like it's wrong on purpose, like we want to be wrong, and stubbornly insist on being wrong, like we won't let go of our wrongness.  There's something missing in us.

Take something obvious, something that everyone else understands, like "time".  When a normal person asks another person, "What time is it?" the other answers, and they both understand what "time" means, just through their basic common sense.  But when you ask a philosopher, she responds, "What is time?" as if there were something broken with her brain, or her ability to use language.  As aggravating as this behavior can be, we have to be understanding toward people with the misfortune of philosophy.

Okay, then - what does "interesting" mean? 

Ah!  Finally!  Now we're onto something!  Now we're having fun!  Because the meaning of interestingness is a much more difficult question, and therefore a much more interesting question, than the question of what philosophy is.  That's for next time.   Click here to continue.


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