“Wisdom is knowing what to overlook.” -William James
I recently published a post criticizing an article titled “Philosophy: A Diseased Discipline,” which offered as “wisdom” the suggestion that we would do well to overlook most of philosophy, as it is a hopelessly muddled and obscure practice that isn’t very “useful.” I wish to offer a counter-position to my own post, which criticized this view, for there is in deed a sense in which the practice of philosophy is quite “irrational.”
For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. -Ecclesiastes 1:18
The author in question is right that philosophy isn’t very “useful” if he means that it is unlikely to get you a job, a date, or relieve your anxieties about the world. In fact, the practice positively compounds most of the ills of modern life. The more you learn about the world, the more of its suffering you are exposed to. The greater your consciousness, the more pain you are capable of feeling. The more possibilities you see, the more anxiety you face. The more you learn the more you will discover how truly ignorant you are, which is rather discouraging. Philosophy is liable to make you humble and virtuous, which are terrible traits to possess in the modern world. To the extent that you cultivate some intellectual superiority through the practice of philosophy (which is impossible to hide for long), you will alienate those around you, especially those who have more financial and social power than you. No boss wants to be out-shined intellectually. Women are interested in being seduced, not enlightened by your words. Do recall what Oscar Wilde said about romance. Virtually no modern career requires general knowledge or wisdom, but only specialization. In fact, there is pretty much nothing except intimate friendship, which is nearly impossible to sustain amid the modern rat race anyway, that will reward your investment in your mind, in growing a soul worth having. So perhaps the author of the above Less Wrong post gives us wisdom in James’s sense and we really can overlook philosophy. He would remind us of something Oscar Wilde learned:
It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.
If I were to really give a young boy “wise” council on life and success, I’d tell him to forget about truth, honor, justice, virtue, and wisdom, but instead, become fierce and cunning, treacherous and deceptive, while hiding all such things under the confident and amiable visage of a sociopath in suit and tie. There is a path to success that society will actually reward. Preserve a piece of your true self and your knowledge of the true narrative just so that you can keep the various stories straight in your head and avoiding tripping over your own lies. There are pills that will help you sleep at night; pills to help you go all day. Their are pills that will dull the existential despair; pills that will enliven an empty and meaningless life. Boredom will hover over your secure little life like a bird of prey, but massive industries exist to distract you and they only appear to be growing larger and more sensational. Now go get-em slugger!
As you may have guessed, I write all of this with a sense of irony and duplicity, but I’m not being insincere. The real message, if you caught the irony, is not that philosophy truly is a diseased discipline, but that we are a truly diseased culture if the practice of philosophy can only hinder your flourishing in it. There is a lot of crap philosophy out there, true; but there is also a lot of crap science out there, crap law, and crap food, but we should hardly dispense with science, law, and food now should we. Besides, William James reminds us that all that is required to be a philosopher is to hate someone else’s way of thinking; that anger and indignation can be a great spur to intellectual activity. However, be warned that the benefits of a life of the mind often don’t cover the costs, depending on what kind of benefits you seek and how much suffering you can endure, of course.
The running joke among philosophy TA’s at UCLA while I was there was that “a Ba will teach you just enough philosophy to fuck you up.” They weren’t kidding. Be warned: my three fields of interest (philosophy, psychology, and physical combat) are not to be “dabbled” in, as a little knowledge will probably do more harm than good, absent further dedication. Each man forms an intuitive worldview that will most likely be entirely shattered by a little reading. Each man has an intuitive theory of mind, which again will probably be violently upset by a little study, unleashing torrents of anxiety into a feeble consciousness hardly built to fathom its own existence. Each man develops an intuitive fighting style that is always hobbled when he first tries to apply rational thought to it (though he will nonetheless probably still be lulled into a false sense of security). Therefore, if you already live with some sense of peace, whether by means of ignorance, beer & football, or a hipster Buddhist lobotomy, you should absolutely stick with that method. Dabbling in the above arts not only threatens to disrupt one’s natural grace and sense of security, but worse, renders one more dangerous to other people when this awkward phase is surpassed, as these disciplines are usually pursued (at first) for power. However, if you are already in this awkward phase or beyond it, I’m afraid the only way out of the hole you dug yourself into is to keep digging until you reach the other side.