When I think about philosophy, letters, learning, I generally get a visual of a medieval monk hunkered over an illuminated manuscript, toiling away in relative solitude, till the vespers bell rings. It’s not a negative image — it actually has really positive associations for me, since I myself love to hunker over books ‘n’ such in the solitude of my own upstairs study.
Or I think of professors delivering lectures before seminar halls filled with note-taking students. Tweed. I see tweed. Button-down shirts open at the collar, sleeves rolled up, hair touseled in whatever way. That’s a familiar sight to me, as well. At least, it used to be.
Or I think of a handful of philosophers (mostly men, er, white men, to be honest), gathered ’round in a office or cozy living room, holding cups of coffee or some other more “spirited” beverage, arguing the finer points of their arguments with gusto. I imagine them reveling in the exchanges, crossing metaphorical swords in bids to either win the point or at least sharpen their weapons and skills in the process. I’ve been in on more than a few of those kinds of discussions over the years. I’m not sure if I ever really won, but I certainly sharpened my wits in the process.
At least, I like to think so.
When it comes to learnedness, study, and devoting one’s life to the love of wisdom (the original meaning of the word “philosophy”), those are the standard-issue images and associations that come to mind for me.
And yet, when I think about my own approach to writing, reading, study, philosophy — which I practice pretty much daily — I’m struck by the extent to which that happens far from the halls of academia. Indeed, I’m struck by the depth to which I believe that (for me, anyway), it all has to happen outside of academia. My inquiries, my readings, my contemplation, and my writing about it … that has to take place and unfold in the outside world, the everyday world, the domain of the mundane and unremarkable, the place of pragmatic, where gloriously pure theory has “fallen” to the realm of the applied.
Don’t get me wrong — I love the idea of pure theory. So long as it actually is pure, I’m all for it.
The thing is, purity has its limits. And those limits can make it not only impractical, but downright dangerous. If you consider a thing only in and of itself, without reference to how it intersects with other things, as part of an ongoing unfoldment of dynamic change, you can get yourself in trouble.
Killing dreaded pests with a chemical makes a lot more sense in a lab, where all you’re killing is the targeted pests. But if you don’t consider its effects on the rest of the insects and pollinators which further the cycles of life, before you take it out of the lab, and you don’t factor that in and adapt for it before you spray it all over every danged thing… Of you don’t consider the downstream impact of manufacturing bazillions of plastic bags, or improper disposal (read, dumping them in the oceans)… Well, you know…
And I wonder, in the face of the very real threats we’re facing on a regular basis, these days… where and what-for is all our education fitting in? We sink a sh*tload of money into our educations, and yet, here we are.
Here we are.
And the older I get, the better I feel about my choice to pursue my studies and thinking outside of academia. If I’d been independently wealthy, I might have spent a great deal of the past years in the Hallowed Halls. But I haven’t been in that situation — at all — so, I’ve been doing my thang out in the world, where I get to find out, up close and personal, just how well my philosophy works. I get to apply what I learn, and not only in the direct sense.
It’s not so much about brushing up on the latest digital marketing methodologies and search technologies. Nor is it about getting an MBA specific to a certain corner of the commercial arena. Nope, it’s broader and deeper than that — more humanistic, in a way. I study people. And not just in books. I look at the news (such as it is), and I watch what people do very closely. I read up on how we’re built, from our cells to our chemicals to our prostheses, and I think about how that affects us. How it shapes us. How it makes us function in relation to each other and the world in which we move.
Most of all, I invest time in thinking. A lot of time. Sure, plenty of people think through what they read / study, but I find I prefer to really, really think through what I’ve read, rather than devouring book after book. I’ve tried to push myself to read more. And it just doesn’t work. It’s like eating a meal. I need time to digest. I need time to assimilate. Once that’s done, I can move on to the next book. Or maybe I’ll wait it out and see where else my newfound knowledge will take me.
And as often as not, I find that life is telling me plenty that I need to know. One of the reasons great literary and scholarly works are so great, is that they help us make use of what the world has to offer. They have a sort of fractality, which mirrors our own grand dramas and dynamics in their more manageable collections of carefully chosen words. They can help us make sense of what’s going on around us, and they give us more tools / inspiration to deal more effectively with what is. Or at least give us some hope, however fleeting, that we might be getting somewhere in the whole grand scheme of things.
One of the things that’s made writing Beloved Distance so compelling for me, is the correspondence I’ve found between what’s inside us, and what’s outside of us. The same types of processes we find unfolding at the cellular level are also mirrored in our larger social lives. It’s been truly mind-boggling, at times, realizing how much a microscopic process can teach me about how to handle group dynamics… how to steer a project at work away from the proverbial rocks… or even adjust to the largest high-tech merger in history. The deeper I get into the neurobiology, the better I understand the biochemistry, and the more I just plain think about it all, the more meaningful it is for me.
And ultimately, the more useful it becomes.
You don’t have to be a nerdy-geeky type like me, to get a lot out of this kind of stuff. All you have to do is really think about it… and it can add so much to your life and your appreciation of what all the world has to offer us, in terms of lessons, inspiration, and rewards.
It’s all right there. For me, for you, for all of us. Life is trying to tell us something. And it can.
If we pay attention.