Becoming a Philosopher

Posted August 11, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Philosophy / 2 Comments

Friedrich NietzscheWhile watching videos from the School of Life YouTube channel recently, in particular the video on Friedrich Nietzsche. I found myself feeling so envious towards people like Nietzsche and Alain de Botton (who was a founder of School of Life) because they are so smart, talented and make me feel like I have so much to learn. This is interesting, since Nietzsche believes envy is an important part of life; it is useful for understanding what we want to achieve and what we are working towards. In his 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morality (Zur Genealogie der Moral) Nietzsche theorises that the concepts of morality are controlled by the powerful (in his time, the clergy), therefore the concept of good and evil is subjective. While he never talks directly about envy, Nietzsche has often criticised the church for portraying envy as a sin and something we should feel guilty about. This is not the current teaching of the church regarding the seven deadly sins, these are just gateways we should be wary about because they can lead to sin. However this misconception can lead to an emphasis on envy which is leading people to feel insufficient with themselves, and that tends to leads to guilt rather than driving ambition.

Luckily in my case, my envy towards people like Friedrich Nietzsche is making me feel ambitious. I was thinking about life, and I asked Twitter how to become a philosopher and the first response I got back was “Be a dick to Plato”. This may not sound helpful but it really does cut to the core purpose of philosophy. If you look up philosopher in the dictionary you get something along the lines of “a person who offers views or theories on profound questions in ethics, metaphysics, logic, and other related fields.” Critically questioning ideas and theories, even the ones Plato wrote about, in essence would make you a philosopher.

My wife, in all her wisdom, said without thinking that everyone should be a philosopher. The ideas behind philosophy are to think about life and the world around us and to assess, accept, reject or expand on the ideas that have been presented to us. Granted, I have not worked out a way to make a career out of philosophy but the reason I started this blog was to story my thoughts and ideas in the one location. Literature has been a huge part of my life and has helped me to critically question the ideas I am faced with.

I have no formal background but I do believe academia does not have all the answers when it comes to philosophy. In the past education was the job of the clergy and the church. Universities were originally created during the decline of religion as a place for people to find meaning to life, ask questions, share ideas and be part of a community. However if you look at the state of today’s universities, you may not even find anything close to this idea. Rather, it feels like a place to tell people what they need to do in order to be qualified for the degree they are pursuing.  I have been in many classes where there is no questioning, no sharing of ideas and no community; you are given a print out and you get assessed on how well you align to the ideas found on the page. Can you imagine going to university in the hopes to become a teacher and then being taught how to teach a class with methods that are never recommended for a classroom setting?

While it is true that you’ll learn something by reading a piece of paper and writing about it (that is essentially what I do here), academia does not seem to be promoting a philosophical lifestyle. My autodidactic journey feels like it aligns with what I want to achieve more than academia does. I question what I read but when it comes to writing about it, I am doing so for myself. I am not being assessed on how well I align to the teacher’s ideas. Rather, I write to practise expressing my opinions and document my learning process.

Granted, if you want to make a living in philosophy, then working in academia would be useful but I often question the way academic papers are written. Reading some philosophical ideas that are written in an academic format can be very difficult, it makes me feel stupid and question my own intellect. I know I have a lot to learn but I think academic writing is more designed to sound smart so people will think the author knows what they are talking about. If I was to say “God is a woman” you might agree or reject my statement without any thought. However if I say “God is a woman and I have a hundred page academic paper to back that up”, your reaction might be a little different. You may think I am still wrong but it might take longer to reach that conclusion. If you disagreed with me but still chose to read the hundred pages, things could be different once again; you might question your own beliefs before accepting or rejecting mine. The purpose of a paper like this would be to express opinions and challenge ideas, however I prefer a more casual approach to writing.

I believe we can start a conversation about ideas without the need to alienate people with overly complex academic papers. If people are willing to share and exchange ideas there are people willing to listen and challenge. I call myself a philosopher because I like to question ideas and explore my thoughts via my writing. Also my twitter bio says I am a philosopher so it must be true. I hope to continue to learn and explore ideas, to question and challenge my way of thinking and if needed, I will be a dick to Plato.

2 responses to “Becoming a Philosopher

  1. Karl KE

    While I do agree that many universities have in some perversed pursuit of rationalisation have lost some of the ideals on the way. Personally, while I do believe that these problems with non-openness towards debate, critique and questioning are probably as old as the universities themselves, this is something that has improved dramatically over the last generation, at least in my part of the world.

    However, as a bachelor student trying hard to learn the difficult art of paper-writing, I can’t rally agree that it is an unnecessary format solely suited for academic snobbery. To me, a scientific paper, in its ideal sense, is a practical format designed to as quickly, succinctly and accurately transmit scientific findings between researchers within the field. Everything that is superfluous or redundant is left out and the concepts are expressed in the shortest and most accurate way possible, often with specific scientific terminology. We must remember that space in a high-ranking journal is both scarce and highly wanted. In essence, the main part of a paper should only contain what is specific for this study, which is also what makes it difficult for someone like you and me, a researcher working in another field or the layman, who need that extra explanation or to read the same thing again but phrased in another way. To put it bluntly, that’s what we have literature for. (And that’s also why real professors rarely use literature themselves but like to recommend it to others.)

    All this applies to the ideal paper, and I do recognise that this might also be much simpler to apply in the natural sciences. But we must not forget, that in the grazhny vonny world of ours, where research is conducted in fierce competition, papers are also signposts — of their authors’ status, the university’s reputation and of the journal’s ranking. All scientists want to see their papers published in a high-ranking journal, and while this means that they must concentrate on writing as good a paper as possible, space in these journals comes at a premium. In the end, no one wants to write a word more than absolutely necessary, even though that might have made the results more accessible to outsiders. The very format of a paper is designed to get the point across as quickly as possible, but a paper can be rational only by putting high demands on its readers.

    So in the end, I believe that papers really are a literary genre with its own kind of beauty, but also one very exclusive, simply because it rationalises on the insider at the expense of the outsider. On the other hand, that is also it’s precise purpose — writing for broader groups of people is is the purpose of other texts. Not even a researcher will understand everything in someone else’s paper, but that is a consequence of practicality rather than snobbyness.

    • Scientific papers are interesting in that way, they can give so much information and allow the author to cover so much. However they don’t make them accessible to outsiders. It is a useful tool in academia but I’m not a fan. I think knowledge should be a little more accessible but I understand the value. Thanks for commenting

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