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The Philosophical Life

A rambling little piece

Alex is a Freshman at the University of Michigan. He’s taking “Introduction to Philosophy,” and he’s really digging it.

I guess he went in with one advantage: a father who encouraged him to take the subject seriously, not to feel stupid for grappling with the higher questions of existence, and not to think he’s wasting his time because he’s not learning how to make money. I’m certain that many fathers install such thoughts in their kids and, in fact, I’m willing to bet that 90% of fathers do so. History is filled with fathers who want their son to put away foolish things and move onto the route of worldly success. St. Francis (not a formal philosopher, of course, but among the wisest ever) and St. Thomas Aquinas come immediately to mind, and I’m willing to bet that, if you lined up the twenty greatest philosophers, 15 had fathers who objected to the philosophical path. I know John Stuart Mill’s father encouraged his philosophy, but other than that? I suspect the philosophically-sympathetic fathers are few.

It’s not surprising, of course. If the father is responsible, he knows what it takes to raise a family. He wants his son to be prepared for the grind, and philosophy isn’t exactly a training ground for the stock market and nailing down the big sale. But I told Alex to embrace such classes anyway. I incline toward the view that a liberal arts education ought to prepare one to live life, not tell a person how to make money. He’ll have time during his Junior and Senior years to learn a craft, plus he’ll have the rest of his life to work and gain money-making experience. And heck, since I seriously doubt we’re going to come out of this horrible economy for at least another five years (and probably seven), he’s not going to get a job in his chosen field (whatever it might be) anyway. He’ll probably end up back here, twiddling his thumbs. He might as well have an education that allows him to spend the time thoughtfully.

Anyway, his next topic in philosophy is the reality/unreality of the world. It’s good stuff. I first understood the philosophical underpinnings of this absurd strain of through when I was a Junior at college and learning Hinduism. The professor taught us about maya, the belief that nothing is real, and gave us a lot of examples until we grasped it. I really enjoyed it. Even though I subscribe heartily to Aristotle and Aquinas’ realism, it’s useful (fun, at any rate) to gain the perspective of intelligent mad men and to grapple with questions like, “Well, how do you know your senses aren’t lying to you? How do you know you’re here?” And if you want to apply a little common sense and start with the senses, then you can ask yourself, “Would I even have a name for Thing X if I didn’t have anything else to compare it to?” That’s the Hindu doctrine of emptiness, and it has parallels in Western philosophy (Schopenhauer, I believe, subscribed to the doctrine of emptiness; he subscribed to the pessimism of Hinduism in general, which reminds me of the Catholic professor who asked why God allowed the devil to use India as his philosophical playground).

Alex told me that he was looking forward to the topic because of The Matrix. I told him that there’s an entire book dedicated to the philosophy of The Matrix. I found it at Amazon for $3.99, so I ordered it. I also ordered a volume from the same series, Seinfeld and Philosophy. Both arrived yesterday.

I’m lucky I had any time for blogging at all last night or today.


  1. (another) Elizabeth
  2. dean