I have a thing about reading philosophy. I like to think of myself as a pragmatist with idealistic leanings, or a practical man that wishes we could tackle the world’s problems just a little bit better. That’s always been the allure of Fantasy and Science Fiction, where magic and fantastical tech make insolvable problems simple, though of course, some problems never get fixed and the gee-whiz solution often introduces new sets of problems.
Philosophy as a Mental Tool
So when I’m reading philosophy (or trying to, since the language is never as clear or concise as you want it) I’m reading with an eye towards how I can apply the proposed world view to my life. I mean, why set about creating a new mental model and system of values unless it corrects a blind spot or gives us a new tool for living a better life?
If we treat philosophies as tools in our brain’s mental toolbox, some philosophies are like screwdrivers and wrenches. They’re useful for the everyday problems we face and give us different ways to make our complex world a little simpler and easier to grasp in the same way we can use a wrench to loosen or tighten a bolt in ways our bare hands just can’t. Utilitarianism and Virtue philosophy are just two examples of thought that can help a person navigate 90% of life’s bumpy road.
But what about that other 10 percent? These are problems requiring specialized tools for specific circumstances, subtleties of thought requiring a torque wrench’s precision because the regular wrench won’t do, or a funny little star-shaped nut our hex-head socket can’t grip.
And therein lies my problem. Sometimes picking up an interesting-looking book on philosophy is like passing an interesting tool in the store and wondering what the devil it’s for. The label is of no help, it’s written in a foreign language with funny diagrams. So you ask the clerk if they know and it’s a crap shoot if they even know what they’re talking about. Stretching this metaphor further, maybe the clerk is an expert that knows exactly when and where you would use this weird tool, and if you truly need it, or they might be filling in from the paint department and give incomplete or outright made-up claims about the tool’s function. Sure, you could use a pneumatic impact wrench to hang a picture on the wall, but have you considered a hammer?
I’m kinda digging this idea of a DIY philosophy Home Depot or Lowe’s. I really need to meet a wild-eyed 19th century german in an orange apron directing me to the Enlightenment aisle, and giving me the stink eye if I ask for Postmodernism.
“Got any Plato?”
“Sure, a whole pallet of Greek stuff in the back, next to rope and chain.”
Rubber, meet Road?
Anyway, there are philosophies with obvious utility, and others that seem interesting but leave me wondering what the point of it is. A comprehensive system-theory approach that ties in everything from atomic particles to transcendent spirituality is all well and good, but how does one apply it? How would a society based on this philosophy act?
Crickets. Or worse, we have ideas but we’re still debating who’s the best thinker.
Such as it’s always been? Perhaps. It’s an easy cliche to paint philosophers as ivory tower types that don’t bother with practicalities until we remember that the United States was built on the philosophy of Enlightenment, Nazi Germany with a particular strain of Niche, and numerous congressmen and senators in the country today quoting Ayn Rand. And here, we come full-circle with the conceits of Fantasy and Science Fiction, where you start with an idea, run with it, and explore how a society based on that idea might function. Even if I can’t find a use for a philosophy’s particulars in my own life, it’s all background for a future story.
How about you? Is anyone out there as confused as I am? Leave a comment and let’s talk!