MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2021
We call it an education: Last Friday, in his New York Times column, David Brooks explored part of the varied terrain of a certain "philosophical problem."
The problem in question might be called "the problem of free will." It was one of the six "philosophical problems" with which we were confronted in the fall semester of 1965, when we took our philosophy department's introductory course.
"Phil 3: Problems in Philosophy." That was the name of the course.
During that course, we beginners were exposed to six philosophical problems. One of the problems was this:
How do you know that 7 + 5 = 12?
We can't recall the identity of four of the other problems. But one of the other philosophical problems was "the problem of free will."
What is the philosophical problem of free will? That question could be answered various ways.
That said, we were flung back to the fall of '65 at the start of Brooks' column. His column started like this:
BROOKS (9/17/21): One of the most unsettling findings of modern psychology is that we often don’t know why we do what we do. You can ask somebody: Why’d you choose that house? Or why’d you marry that person? Or why’d you go to graduate school? People will concoct some plausible story, but often they really have no idea why they chose what they did.
We have a conscious self, of course, the voice in our head, but this conscious self has little access to the parts of the brain that are the actual sources of judgment, problem-solving and emotion. We know what we’re feeling, just not how and why we got there.
But we also don’t want to admit how little we know about ourselves, so we make up some story, or confabulation...
Hmm. If we don't know why we do the things we do—if our conscious self has little access to the parts of the brain which control our feelings and our assessments—can we really be held accountable for the decisions we make—for the things we do in circumstances where no external force stopped us from doing something else?
No one stopped you from doing X! On the other hand, you had no access to the parts of the brain which led you to do Y instead.
Given these circumstances, can you be blamed (or praised) for having done Y? Also, to what extent can it be said that you did Y "of your own free will?"
Can you be blamed for having done Y? At this point, we're fumbling with something which might be seen as part of "the problem of free will."
We don't recall how this "problem" was defined, explained or presented to us rubes in that introductory course. But if memory serves, this was the one problem of philosophy, out of the six, which seemed to be a genuine intellectual problem, not an exercise in a pointless type of academic complexification.
In later years, we sometimes said, on the comedy stage, that we weren't sure who those "problems in philosophy" were supposed to be problems for.
For whom did knowledge of 7 + 5 constitute a philosophical problem? Even in 1965, inquiring minds wanted to know.
In fairness, the answer was partially clear at the time. These problems were serious problems for Mr. X (NOT REAL INITIAL), the graduate student teaching assistant with whom our section of the class met on a weekly basis.
Mr. X was a perfectly decent person. On the other hand, he would not infrequently stare out the third-story window in Emerson Hall, running his fingers through his hair as he struggled with the maddening difficulty of these philosophical problems.
"Don't jump, Mr. X!" we wanted to shout. Mr. X was taking these philosophical quandaries disturbingly hard.
(For the record, how can you know—how can you be sure—that 7 + 5 = 12? Our advice would be this: Simplify the philosophical problem by changing the example to 1 + 1 = 2. Then, proceed from there.)
Full disclosure: Mr. X didn't jump! He received his doctorate in the street-fighting year of 1969, as was completely appropriate. Today, he's a professor emeritus at a major university.
Here's something else that happened in the wake of Phil 3. A bunch of us freshmen decided to switch to different majors. Entering college, we hadn't known what academic philosophy is like.
After sophomore year, we skillfully switched back. In the spring semester of our junior year, we took the undergraduate Wittgenstein course, which focused entirely on Philosophical Investigations (1953), the puzzling text which defines the work of the so-called "later Wittgenstein."
The book is almost absurdly opaque. That said, we think it can be read in ways which are highly instructive. Along the way, we've mentioned an oddity concerning this book:
In 1999, a survey of philosophy professors named Philosophical Investigations the most important philosophy book of the 20th century. That said, no one has the slightest idea what Wittgenstein said, suggested, proved or claimed in the jumbled and puzzling book.
Perhaps for that reason, this most important philosophy book of the 20th century has had exactly zero effect on the bankrupt, clownish public discourse of the 21st century. It's the most important philosophy book, and it lies in the village graveyard, never consulted or used.
This week, we're returning to a daily attempt to draw utility from this most important philosophy text. By all accounts, the book is quite hard to understand. As we noted last Wednesday, its structure is rather unique.
How should a reader approach this allegedly important book? Returning to where we were last week, we plan to offer possible guidance, though at this point we'll offer a warning:
We plan to move through the text extremely slowly, even with care.
We call this "reading a book." Borrowing from the closing line of Tara Westover's recent best-seller, we're also going to call it a (possible) education.
In her mammoth best-seller, Educated: A Memoir, Westover described the unusual way she and her siblings were raised by their semi-survivalist parents. She also describes the ways she developed her own "selfhood"—the ways she instructed herself. We admire the way Westover ended her book:
The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones [my earlier self] would have made. They were the decisions of a changed person, a new self.
You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
I call it an education.
We like the fact that Westover knows that a certain state of affairs can be viewed in various ways—can be called many things. It seems to us that the game is rarely played this way at the present time.
In truth, there are zero serious discussions within our failing discourse. We plan to discuss Wittgenstein's text quite slowly, possibly even with care.
We expect to move at a slow rate of speed. We're inclined to call that process "reading a book."
Tomorrow: Important book's first paragraph