Thursday, October 7, 2010

Subtlety of thought

The Philosophy Student Union holds semi-formal Cafés. Professors come to talk to us about interests and we talk amongst ourselves about philosophy. I am quiet. I do not have much to say. I do not understand what I am learning like the others do. I do not wish to make a fool of myself.

Last year a law student came to visit us. He graduated with a BA in philosophy a few years back. I listened to him talk with the fourth year honours students.

'It seems like, once you've done four years you're done,' he said.

The student agreed. 'You get a view of the subject matter and it doesn't really seem like there is much more to learn or much further to go.'

The law student was pleased to meet this agreement and they continued their discussion for some time. 'Well, there's a lot of reading but I can pretty much guess where it is all going. A few details wrong but I feel like I understand the field now.'


I talked with my tall friend after that. Neither of us felt as if we could understand philosophy like these bright people. We are both slightly incompetent. We are can never read enough. Is that why he is a law student and I am not? Is this man only a few years older then me really brilliant?

I have felt the way those two felt. I have felt as if philosophy as it is seen now is rather empty. I do not wish to spend my career picking apart one passage in one book. That is not important. It cannot be the goal of a whole life because if the passage is really that troublesome it should be discussed by everyone always until answers can be found. If it is left only to one person who only works on that one little difficulty there will be no imagination left.

I am now a fourth year honours student and I still do not understand what philosophy is, but I have a much better idea then last year. A year full of friends and study groups and excitement for my chosen discipline have brought me into the stream.

I can see the clear path set out for me. I can see the methods with which to discover new ideas. I know I must follow these methods if I wish to make a usable contribution, but sometimes I let my mind wander a bit.

We discussed the use of intuitions in philosophy. Intuitions are our means of communication. We confirm that people agree with us about the world in order to continue safely along the path, for philosophers are ever tempted by willow-wisps and sometimes mistake the light of a kitchen window for the light of truth. The trouble is research is being done on intuitions which shows that the way each person thinks can be much different and much less clear then formerly expected.

I do not see this as a problem because I believe intuitions exist to prevent our audience from becoming lost, but this is not what they are used for. Intuitions are used in the place of evidence, and this can be problematic.

For example, if you ask someone to think of a horse there will be huge variation. One person thinks of an experience, one of a brown horse they have never seen, one of a drawing, one of a feeling.

We think we are communicating and we get this!

The world is very complex. The portion of it we use and discuss and understand is only a portion. There are vast lands we do not know of or do not discuss because it is difficult or because they simple do not interest us, or because the difference between what we see as real and what can be seen as real is so subtle as to be almost unnoticeable. It is like think of the South Pole or discussing China. There is a great deal to discuss when we sit down and begin to speak of it, but these places do not enter into our geography in the same way that other places do.

2 comments:

chaospet said...

I've gotta say, I'm pretty astounded to hear people say that they think they've got the field of philosophy (more or less) figured out after 4 years. I've been at it substantially longer than that, and I still feel like I have a tremendous amount to learn.

Jesse said...

I'm glad to hear that you are astounded. I am also.