by Scott F. Parker
After reading Daniel Kaufman’s essay “The Decline and Rebirth of Philosophy,” I found myself wondering what exactly philosophy offers those of us who are not professional philosophers and, specifically, what it has given me.
Responding to these questions has entailed reflecting on my views and my case as one example of what philosophy can be for an amateur. I offer my example not as representative or as an ideal for amateurism but as a demonstration of what it can be like to take philosophy personally. Consistent with that notion, I intend what follows as a story. Even when I advance certain arguments, I mean for those arguments to be understood as part of the story of how things look from a certain perspective; namely, the perspective of someone on the outer edge of the philosophy world who got up early to sit as his desk and take in the view.
So. Here’s what I see.
What Counts as Philosophy?
I think of myself as having been reading philosophy for twenty years now. But many of the books that come to mind when I recall this period are not to be found on any university syllabus, nor are they likely to be. They weren’t written for philosophers, they were written for me, the layperson. And whether such books are seen as instances of philosophy or merely dumbed-down treatments of philosophy meant to flatter the average reader depends entirely on what we take philosophy to be in the first place. The advantage of restricting it to what “is written by professional philosophers for professional philosophers” (Kaufman) is the clear borders this draws. Until you have a Ph.D. in philosophy (as I do not), you are excluded from the community that decides what philosophy is and is for. The problem, of course, is that philosophy, as it’s normally understood, comes so naturally (if amateurishly) to all of us: Who am I? How should I conduct myself? What is the nature of reality? What can I know? Philosophy doesn’t begin at commencement and live in the seminar room or in the academic journal. It begins somewhere between curiosity and crisis, and it lives in people’s lives.
A person takes an interest in philosophy only because he can’t not take an interest in philosophy. There can be no other reason. Once he is exposed to it, it seizes his attention. (Or, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.) For those who do take an interest, reading or otherwise doing philosophy is its own reward, because it speaks to a deeply felt need for meaning or insight. (Note: it doesn’t necessarily provide meaning or insight, but it speaks to the need for them.) Even if you start out seeking answers to profound questions, you stick around for the method of engaging those questions. Maybe someone reads Plato in their first semester of college and says, “Finally, someone is seriously addressing what is important in life.” Maybe someone else reads Emerson and is intoxicated by the drive to become a richer version of himself. Maybe someone else encounters Marxism or Existentialism or Buddhism, and suddenly the world looks completely different and they are thrilled by this. It manifests in myriad ways. But however it manifests, it is an end in itself. Or if it is a means, it is only insofar as reflecting on meaning or pursuing insight satisfy something fundamental in us. No one puts energy into philosophy because it will help them improve their reputation, buy a bigger house, attract sex partners, make their parents proud, or any of the usual things that can be counted on to motivate us.
Still, what is philosophy? And what are philosophical texts? If philosophy is an itch, a philosophical text is one that scratches it; one, that is, that satisfactorily addresses the philosophical needs of its readers, whatever those needs may be. In making this claim I am passing no judgment on the texts themselves, only on the experiences readers have with the texts. If a text written for the layperson can be criticized for making bad arguments, it should be. If it can be criticized for telling a story badly, it should be. However, the fact that it is written for the layperson or the fact that it is not as technical as some other writing on the same subject is not in itself a reason for dismissal. The point isn’t to be exclusive. The point of a text is to be useful. I hope this isn’t controversial. Plato and Descartes are regularly read by non-philosophers. No one takes this as a knock against them.
Similarly, it should be no knock against Sam Harris that he’s as popular as he is. The author and podcaster dedicates himself seriously to questions like What constitutes a good life? What is the nature of consciousness? Can faith be justified? Harris makes for a good example of what I’m calling a philosopher precisely because he’s so polarizing. Defining philosophy by its concerns, its methods, and its value to its audience says nothing about any kind of “objective value” of the work. It is quite possible to hold that Harris is a bad philosopher and to try to demonstrate why without dismissing him out of hand with slurs, whether they be veiled like “public intellectual” or explicit like “gateway to the alt-right.” He writes and speaks, among other topics, to the concerns that people turn to philosophy to have addressed. And he does so to the great satisfaction of many people.
Someone wishing to protect the borders of professional philosophy might object that treating a text as an instance of philosophy if it addresses one or more of the traditional concerns of philosophy admits not only someone like Harris but almost anyone at all, as long as readers find in it the kind of meaning they’re looking for. I don’t see this as a problem, at least not for the laypeople I have in mind. Qualitative judgments about philosophy must meet readers where they are. And philosophy’s critical method ensures that pursuing it sincerely will deliver such judgments in due course.
And What Doesn’t
If we define philosophy loosely as a response to a handful of Big Questions people tend to ask (questions such as What is the nature of reality? What can I know with certainty? What should I value, and why? and so on), we must make sure the definition is loose enough to also include reflexive and methodological questions such as Does it make sense to speak of reality as something that has a nature? Is there any perspective from which we might know what it means to know? These kinds of questions are subsequent to what motivates philosophy, but they are inseparable from what motivates it. If I am having a crisis of meaning in my life, it is extremely relevant to me whether I think meaning is possible.
One implication of treating philosophy this way is that popular philosophers like Harris or Matthew Crawford or John Kaag or Alain de Botton might have more in common with the great philosophers of the past than do the leading scholars of the day.
Consider the number of books that have been written about Plato and how much less rewarding it is to read them than it is to read Plato himself. The same point can be made for almost any canonical philosopher. And what, after all, is the canon but those texts that stay useful to lots of readers over a long period of time?
If professional philosophers aren’t willing to address the most profound concerns we hold, it is to their shame. At least that’s how it looks from my perspective on the margins. Doing scholarship is a lot easier and a lot less valuable than speaking to the ache and confusion that sit at the depths of us.
But one might object, if a philosophical text is valuable insofar as it addresses profound human concerns, how has it done so far in its addresses? Is it actually helpful? The concerns, after all, date back to Plato. Why haven’t we made more progress? Seen another way, though, the fact that Plato’s concerns are largely still ours is evidence of their profundity. The challenge is to say something meaningful (and therefore useful) about them, not to solve them. That only a handful of thinkers have contributed significantly to these questions that arise for all of us speaks to their centrality in the human experience. The point of philosophy, as I’m treating it here, is not to achieve assured positions in response to the Big Questions but to confront their mystery. For someone who isn’t troubled by Big Questions in the first place, philosophy never gets off the ground. But for those who are so troubled, philosophy offers at least the assurances that such troubles are not ours alone and that we might face them more clearly.
Literature as Philosophy
By defining philosophy as writing that addresses the profoundest concerns of human beings, I left all the room in the world for the various other kinds of writing that we don’t normally call “philosophy” but that do address the profoundest concerns of human beings to be brought into philosophy’s fold. I want to enter that room and imagine all literature as potential philosophy.
For example, while a philosopher might be an essayist, an essayist might be a philosopher. Indeed, in our time the essay (to take only the clearest case) could probably be said to address our profoundest concerns more often and more fruitfully than most of what gets published as philosophy.
In an earlier draft of this essay I started a list here of the kind of writers I have in mind when I think of literature as philosophy, but it quickly grew so long it included nearly every contemporary writer I read, all of whom teach me how to live not by telling me how to live but by demonstrating, performing, depicting, imagining various ways of being. These writers tend to ask questions, they invite reflection, they do what philosophers have always done most fundamentally, which is not to produce arguments but to provoke thought.
One might reasonably object that if everything is philosophy, nothing is philosophy. I agree there is something distinct about the method philosophy employs. Its directness makes it formally distinct (generally speaking) from other genres of writing, but its interest in what it’s like to be a human being is one with literature’s. Or, if that’s putting it too strongly, what I’m saying is this is the kind of philosophy I like to read and how I like to read it.
I have that privilege as a layperson. The amateur philosopher is free of the responsibility to keep up professionally and therefore has the luxury to follow his nose. Philosophy’s role in my life is purely intrinsic. Any route I take that does not seem likely to reward my efforts, I abandon without regret. One cost, of course, is that my education (if that’s the right word) is scattershot and likely superficial in certain regards. These would be devastating shortcomings for a scholar. For an amateur, they are natural and neutral outcomes of the fact that he is able to be, in Emerson’s phrase, his own measure. I defer to nothing but my own whims.
Philosophy as Literature
At the core of my approach, as it has evolved, and going hand in hand with reading literature as philosophy, is the notion of reading philosophy as literature. This move frees philosophy from any burden to offer a final word or even to give much comment at all on the way things are. Instead, it can ask, simply, what happens if we think or see this way? Having been at this casual practice for years now, I know not to read philosophy as trying and failing to provide definitive answers (if that were philosophy’s job, I might see some merit in the criticism that it hasn’t made much progress over the millennia) but as not actually trying to provide such answers in the first place. I read it as a genre of literature, much as I read essays and novels and poems. Once we scrap the naive notion that philosophy aims to produce or identify true belief and replace it with a conception of philosophy as a practice of suspending and challenging one’s habitual orientation to things that is inherently enriching, we can accept its lack of “progress” as a necessary feature of its radical reflexivity: any possible “advance” is subject to displacement of the kind that produced it.
Consider that we don’t read Plato by extracting his ideas from the narrative and dialogical form in which he writes. (And if we do read this way, we read badly.) How something is said is inseparable from what is being said. My method as a reader is to approach all of philosophy as Kierkegaard did Hegel: “If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought in which he had even begged the question in many places, then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.”
All philosophy, I assume, is a thought experiment. As is all literature. This is why Jorge Luis Borges and Ursula K. Le Guin say that all prose is fiction. A writer asks readers to give life to thought. As we do, we imagine worlds (literally or figuratively) of possibility. These possibilities are mental constructs, hypothetical, fictional. The only thing they attest to is the provocation “What if?” Keeping this in mind helps us to be critical, ironic, better readers.
To read philosophy is to try on thoughts that you might not otherwise have found. What happens, I say to myself, if I think this way? And what about that way? There is a richness to reading this way that doesn’t attend to reading for the sake of conclusions. It asks for participation in the construction of the philosophy. I bring an author’s writing to life as I give it voice in my mind. It’s like reading novels. Just as I don’t read a novel and say, Ah, now that one was right and the others were wrong, I don’t read philosophy to determine who gets it right. I read both novels and philosophy — as with all forms of literature — for the pleasures of reading them.
Indeed, what I’m trying to do in this essay is to tell a certain story about what philosophy could be. And I’m asking the reader to think along with me. I don’t hope at the end to have convinced you that I’m right. I hope, at the end, to ask you, “What happens if we look at things this way?”
I take literature to be about what it means to be human. Philosophy is one mode of exploring this interest. And as Kaufman writes in his essay, “philosophy is at its best when asking questions and at its worst when purporting to answer them.” When it is written well, philosophy is generative, expansive, and exciting as well as clarifying.
One likely consequence of reading philosophy as literature is to privilege philosophers who write well, which can’t but influence how the reader thinks. When we give voice enough to someone’s thoughts, we become accustomed to holding their perspective in mind, the ultimate result of which is sometimes for their perspective to become ours. Do I, for example, follow so much of Emerson and Nietzsche because I find their arguments, such as they are, compelling or because I am amenable to their sensibilities or because I find their styles winning and so adopt their views consequently? It may seem like I’m shirking responsibility for my views when I say I don’t care much about this distinction. Matters of philosophy versus rhetoric or substance versus style aren’t the kind I’m inclined to raise out of a sense of responsibility. If the discrepancy between what is said and how it’s said is egregious enough to draw attention, it has already demanded objection. Short of that, I’m with Joan Didion when she says that style is character.
Generally speaking, I see no great need to separate the aesthetic from the intellectual. And I’m not sure any of us should. Ideas are their articulation. Form is content. Summaries of Plato do not substitute for the experience of reading Plato any more than a description of a Bob Dylan song substitutes for hearing one or an explanation of sex substitutes for having it.
What do I like so much about the genre, then? I like that it gets right to the point. At its best, it gives us authors trying their best to think insightfully about what concerns them most. Descartes retiring to his chamber is more exciting than any plot I’ve ever encountered in a novel. It is consciousness rendered. Yes! It is the mind loosed upon the page. Yes! It is our most human project. Yes! It is our deepest questions. Yes! It is our willingness not to settle for easy answers. Yes! It is doubt. It is curiosity. It is humility. It is not blinking when the abyss stares back. Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! I have no affinity for Descartes’s conclusions, but I think to be preoccupied with them is to miss the power of reading him.
Skipping ahead to our era, Kaufman is right, from my perspective, that too many philosophers operate with a “by us for us” mentality. This is especially disappointing because so much philosophy that has survived is so well written. For every Kant or Hegel or Aristotle, there is a Schopenhauer or Nietzsche or Plato. I could go on to name Augustine, Berkeley, Hume, and others. More recently, Rorty, Nagel, and Singer—surely, some of their influence is due to the quality of their prose.
Kierkegaard criticized Hegel for not framing his logic as an experiment in thought. I’m asking to read all philosophy as such an experiment; all of it, that is, as Borgesian fiction. Philosophy, like all literature, invites us to participate in a way of seeing and thinking. Whether we are affected by it enough to build something of our worldviews there depends everything on literary qualities that don’t reduce to abstract argumentation. We are not computers. We are not always rational. We live in stories, through stories, and as stories. Philosophy has advantages and disadvantages against other modes of storytelling, but it is a mode like any other. If it brings us truth, it does so in the way of all literature: by resonating with human experience. We have no other appeal.
Philosophy and Autobiography
Nietzsche tells us that all philosophy is a confession, an “involuntary and unconscious autobiography.” It may not surprise you to know that I think he’s right.
If you will entertain the possibility that philosophy begins somewhere between crisis and curiosity, a philosopher’s concerns and his responses to them reveal him more than his biography ever could.
But there is a strain of voluntary and conscious autobiographical writing in philosophy, too. Augustine invented the memoir, and the form has never been far from the field. Rousseau, Mill, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Hazel E. Barnes, Russell, Thoreau, and Cavell have all published memoirs. Nietzsche wrote one of the best.
It follows, doesn’t it, that if philosophy is a matter of personal concerns, responses to those concerns will lend themselves to the form of the memoir: the story of how the self changed over time. Here is what I struggled with, the philosopher writes or implies, and here is how I found my bearings. The line of an argument shares with the arc of a memoir this story: here is the way from A to B.
One recommendation for making the autobiographical explicit is that, as literary writers have long recognized, the particular is often the best way to the universal. Descartes’s arguments make as much sense as they do in part because of how apparent the stakes of the argument are for him. Descartes, the rationalist, advances by his appeal to our narrative curiosity and emotional engagement with his struggle.
As undergraduates, my peers and I were told with a wink to reassure our parents that philosophy majors had the highest LSAT scores. The joke flattered us not only because it confirmed we were more intelligent than other students but also because few of us were considering anything as pedestrian as the Law. Philosophy was concerned with the highest things, and we, therefore, were above just about all of it. Anyone who was choosing their major for instrumental reasons would have already chosen business or maybe political science if they really did want to be lawyers.
But back on the ground, where I eventually discovered much of life is lived, my philosophy degree got me exactly nowhere, career-wise. Perhaps I should have taken the LSAT or joined the business school. Except, of course not. I didn’t study philosophy for the job it would eventually earn me, so I can hardly begrudge it for not leading me to it. To treat the study of philosophy as a vocational endeavor is to have already devalued it. Of course, writing this way I am invoking privilege and leisure. I don’t deny it. To have the opportunity to study philosophy has always seemed to me one of the fruits of a good life. It is necessarily its own reward.
My undergraduate philosophy advisor, John Lysaker, once wrote that no one goes into philosophy because they want to write journal articles. They go into it because they want to write like Nietzsche. How’s that for philosophizing with a hammer! It has always struck me, similarly, that no one goes into philosophy hoping to make a small contribution to a subfield that matters to almost no one in the world. They go into it because they’re wild for meaning and ideas. Philosophy suggests that everything you know could be wrong; everything you believe can be challenged; everything you value could be unworthy. It is a radical pursuit. Far from being academic, obscure, and impersonal, the philosophy that draws people is human, vital, and deeply personal.
This, anyway, is how I thought about philosophy for myself after graduation. I figured if I were going to try writing something, I at least wanted to hold on to the possibility that what I wrote could matter to someone in the way that the writing that had touched me had done so. This led me to associate more closely with the kinds of literary texts discussed above than those from philosophy proper. Works of memoir, essay, and fiction more reliably helped me understand myself and the world.
Yet I kept an eye on, and often a foot in, philosophy. Its critical nature; its commitment to getting to the core of things; its childlike refusal to cease asking “Why?” Its systematic method and the clarifications that often followed were rewards that other forms of literature weren’t always interested in. Yet, so often it lacked the stakes of other forms. The author rarely put him- or herself on the line (only their ideas about certain topics). While technically difficult, the bulk of philosophy read as artistically and emotionally disengaged. And it struck me as an unfortunate practice on the part of philosophers to take the easy way out by neglecting the opportunity to write about what matters most.
It’s an easy charge to level. And it’s easy to understand why someone wouldn’t want to take the challenge. When the stakes are real, the bullshit detector gets set to high. Yet an author who doesn’t risk himself in his work, it is plain to see on the page, has very little of value to offer his reader. Ideas and ideas about ideas, and never a sense of who or what those ideas are for. But those writers who, instead of seeking to impress the reader, invite the reader, as if a friend, to join him where he is, in whatever struggle—these are the writers whose work might affect you. Join me in this line of thought. I don’t know whether it will be fruitful. But let us find out together. What happens if we think this way?
As I have fumbled my way toward this kind of approach, whether in philosophical or creative works, I have had to confront, time and again, my limitations as a writer, as a thinker, and as a human being. If almost no writing of any genre is of lasting value to readers, how does one produce it? Significant contributions to the big questions of philosophy are exceedingly rare, as are works of literature that are read beyond their era. If one is unlikely to produce such work, why would he try?
What I’ve decided is that the practice of writing about what is important is valuable for the author no matter the writing’s impact on the world. In a book I have coming out later this year, I apply myself to the big questions of philosophy in an effort to perform for the reader how one person might approach them. I am not deceived that I have something significant to add to the big questions themselves. Indeed, everything I say comes one way or another from another source. What is potentially unique about it is how I synthesize the ideas and how I present them. It might be valuable to readers. It might prompt them to take up similar projects of reflection. It might land for them in novel ways. It might provoke interesting responses. There’s no way to know except to offer it in the hope it is useful and then find out.
The book follows a simple story: I went for a walk and thought about some things. It combines philosophy and autobiography, setting my ideas in a lived context, and thereby making explicit the relationship that Nietzsche says is inherent to all thinking. It is the most I have concentrated my thinking about philosophical concerns, yet it is fundamentally a narrative work. It will succeed or fail by its literary style and sensibility. As philosophy, it is amateur work by design. That is one of its realities and, I hope, one of its virtues. It tries to make room for readers to become their own amateur philosophers (whether in the margins or in their minds or even on another page).
But what does it mean to be an amateur philosopher? Or in my case, what has it meant, practically? I have written about philosophy in popular books and magazines. I have reviewed philosophical works in literary venues. I have allowed philosophy to be an explicit influence on my other writing. But as much as I have found writing philosophy and writing about philosophy useful in shaping my own thinking and ways of relating to the world, reading has been more fundamental.
Since finishing my formal studies in philosophy as an undergraduate, I have followed my reading nose more deeply into Nietzsche and spent good time with Rorty and West and their pragmatist precursors. I’ve kept up with Buddhism and the debates about consciousness, among other pet interests. I’ve circled back from time to time to old favorites like existentialism and Aristotle’s ethics. I’ve poked around in Wittgenstein and maintain my ambition to poke around some more. I’ve read the new books that are well received, and I’ve reread old favorites. I go back to Plato regularly and not just when I’m teaching him in writing classes. I could go on, but the point is that so much in philosophy can be read profitably by the average reader, and doing so is one way to contribute to a rich life. I think it’s natural to want to give back when one feels grateful, but it’s possible to gain plenty from philosophy without ever trying to return the favor.
I suppose I’m typical of the amateur philosopher. I started reading philosophy out of curiosity and was quickly enamored of the way profound concerns were taken up and treated seriously, the way lines of thought progressed, the way conversations played out over centuries and remained ongoing. I have kept with it not because I think I’m getting closer to answering the big questions (once and for all, or even to my own lasting satisfaction). Rather, I have kept with it because I enjoy the experience of having my thinking change over periods of years, enjoy the occasional insights that strike a deep chord in me, enjoy having previous opinions upended. I’m in it for the long haul with no hope of getting anywhere other than on the path I’m already on, wherever it leads.
A Final Note on Genre
This essay speaks the language of self-help, does it not? There is a crisis (mysteries and doubts attendant to being human), and there is an easily identifiable treatment (philosophy, as I’m defining it).
But what about a pure philosophy that isn’t tainted by the need to address everyday realities? What about that noblest thing: the purely intellectual life?
It has long struck me as odd how the intellect is seen as a kind of purity, while life and the world are seen as impure. I’m with Nietzsche. The gods are dead. Instead of trying to resuscitate them, let’s work with the messy world we live in and the messy realities we know.
If an idea — or, better, a story — helps us live, let’s hear it. What but flourishing has any purchase on our aims? (And, by all means, let us debate till the end what flourishing entails.) The problem with the self-help genre isn’t what it tries to do, it’s that it usually does it badly. Stoicism, Epicureanism, Taoism, Buddhism, all of these are guides for how to live. So are literature and philosophy as I’m advocating for them. But they help us not by advising a program of rehabilitation. They help us continue to think and grow—that process being the closest thing we have to a path leading to a meaningful life. It is philosophy’s method of not offering answers (or at least not having these answers widely accepted) that is its best response to our situation. If we keep reading and keep thinking and keep questioning, eventually we will find that our lives have been made richer thereby. Ignorance isn’t bliss but reaching the limits of knowledge or wisdom or insight and continuing into the unknown is pretty close.
Scott F. Parker is the author or editor of several books, including The Joy of Running qua Running, Coffee—Philosophy for Everyone: Grounds for Debate (with Mike W. Austin), and Being on the Oregon Coast (forthcoming in September). His essays, reviews, and interviews appear regularly in Philosophy Now, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other publications. He teaches writing at Montana State University.