Wednesday, September 09, 2009

A Dab of Paint

One sunny Saturday summer afternoon a few years ago, I pulled out the Strathern classic, Wittgenstein in 90 Minutes and plopped down in a lawn chair next to my tanning wife. I sat down excited about thinking deep thoughts; I stood up ninety minutes later in a different world. Philosophy, I now believed, had become nothing more than a battle of dictionaries. I had become a dab of paint on a canvas trying to interpret the painting around me. From that day until this, I hadn't read two sentences of philosophy since Wittgenstein played Dorian Grey to my portrait.

This morning, I read the prologue to Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy. He advises the reader that
the philosopher is not content to describe the fact; he wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general, and thereby get at its meaning and its worth; . . . he tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has anlytically taken apart.
That hot summer day, Wittgenstein took my universe-watch apart. I hope that Durant can put it back together, better than before, over the next 530 pages. Maybe I can't interpret the whole painting, but I can at least get an idea of what's around me.


Billy Edwards said...

philosophy is like a blind guy in a room devoid of any light looking for a black cat that isn't there.

Jeremy Masten said...

If philosophy is an attempt to find Truth, and Jesus is the Truth, then what does the black cat represent?

Billy Edwards said...

Your working under the assumption that philisophy does attempt to find truth. I think it attempts to define truth, not find it. If philosophers want to find truth, I've got a great suggestion on where to look.
And remember, the black cat isn't there.

Jeremy Masten said...

Hmm. A Wittgensteinian battle of the dictionaries?

I would argue that science attempts to find/define truth, but that philosophy attempts to find/define Truth. I would then define truth as all the myriad factual details of existence, and Truth as the uniting thread that gives all those factual details meaning.

Please note that I use the term philosophy to refer to the pursuit of orthodoxy---believing the right things---and religion to refer to the pursuit of orthopraxy---doing the right things. Of course, orthopraxy grows out of orthodoxy and orthodoxy grows out of orthopraxy---it's all very chicken-and-egg.

So maybe philosophy and religion work together?

Billy Edwards said...

I must admit this conversation is likely above my pay grade.

In theory I subscribe to your defintions of truth/Truth. But I cannot say that those who do not know Truth should be described as genuinely finding the uniting details of individual truths. I.e., Nietzsche, et al, cannot be described as pursuing Truth - or as you say, "believing the right things." He and those of his persuasion do attempt to unite the truths of life, but in doing so dramatically missed the Truth of life, which disqualifies them in your definitions.

I would also say that orthodoxy that grows out of orthopraxy is why so many churches are as dead as a doornail. In my mind, it must be the other way around. We can only know how to "do" when we know how to believe.

But again, I'm likely out of my league here. And fundamentally, I must admit my prejudice against philosphers.

Jeremy Masten said...

1 - Philosophy is not above anyone's pay grade, but humility is a requirement for honest philosophy. Paul himself---Christianity's first philosopher---urged us to "work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling." My good Baptist upbringing tells me that I'm saved by faith alone and not by works, so the only other option is that he's talking about figuring it out---philosophizing, if you will---on your own. Ergo, we have a Pauline duty to philosophize and to philosophize humbly.

2 - I don't have a problem with your anti-philosopher prejudice. To misquote a popular adage: don't hate the game, hate the playa. Nietzche, Russell, the Mills, Wittgenstein: they might have been wrong or come to the wrong conclusions, but that doesn't make the game they played (philosophy) an evil thing. Being wrong is an essential part of the philosophical process. Three philosophers immediately come to mind that you probably don't dislike: Moses, Paul, and Thomas Aquinas. Being a "theologian" doesn't disqualify you from being a philosopher in my book.

3 - Orthopraxy-borne orthodoxy isn't always necessarily a bad thing. I heard a story growing up about a woman who wanted a divorce. She faithfully attended church, though, so she wanted her pastor's blessing before doing anything so drastic. One day, they met for counseling, and she told him how she felt. She told him that her husband is terrible, that all he ever does is sit in his recliner and watch the sport of the season, that the spark is gone, and that she needs a new lease on life. The pastor listened patiently, then responded. "Wow---your husband is terrible. He deserves to suffer a bit. I've got an idea." She leaned forward excitedly. "Why don't you wait a few weeks before you tell him and, in the meantime, treat him like a king. That way he'll know exactly what he'll miss when the constable serves him with the divorce papers." At first, she just tilted her head, weighing his advice. Then, slowly, her eyes got bigger as she realized how devious his plan was. She remembered that great quote from Proverbs: "If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you." (Prov. 25:21-22.) Before she left, they agreed to get together again after a few weeks.

For the next few weeks, she treated her husband like a king, feeding him his favorite food when he was hungry and making countless trips to the fridge on Sunday afternoon so he wouldn't miss a down. At first, she felt giddy with deceit, but as time passed, the giddiness faded away. After a few weeks, she and her pastor meet again. She sits down, and he asks her how things are going. "Well, pastor, I have to tell you." She looks down at her hands folded in her lap. "I used to think that I couldn't live two more weeks with that jerk, but now," she looks up. "Now, I know how much I would miss him if he were gone. I don't think I want a divorce anymore."

By doing the right thing---loving her husband and fighting for her marriage---she came to believe the right thing---that marital commitment is sacred.

But you're right: most of the time, trying to do the right thing won't get you to believing the right things.

Billy Edwards said...

And once again, I acquise to your brilliance. Really.

For point one, I can only say that I agree with my brother.

Point 2 - my distaste for philoshophers is mainly in this: I don't understand how they make a living :). That said, I do agree that many good men (and women) are great philosophers that I admire. I guess what I mean is that I like people that agree with me.

Point 3 - I have actually used that illustration a couple of times in sermons, so naturally, I do agree that some orthopraxy-based orthordoxy is valid, despite my earlier comment. I just think it's a rare situaion.

Thanks for the dialogue. I enjoyed it, and it sharpened me.

Jeremy Masten said...

How do you gracefully tell a source that you forgot to cite him?