Belief in the strict, simple constructs of philosophy can be a guiding force. Having a philosophy can provide one a sense of fulfillment, a discipline, a code, and a foundation for a way to live through the extensive knowledge of the various minds of philosophy. A student of the mind can delve so deeply in a philosopher’s thoughts, or philosophical thought in general, that they can eventually reach a point where they believe they have an answer for everything that plagues them in life. For most of us, however, philosophy simply provides a plan ‘B’ in life.
“Renowned philosophers have never helped me!” say those that don’t believe philosophers can even provide a decent plan B. “All they ever do is talk about the problems of man. All they do is talk about what I do wrong, and they never teach me how to correct my errors.”
But some of the times they get close. Some of the times they get so close it can be frustrating. It would be one thing if they said nothing, but some of the times they get so close to the heart of all that ails us that it almost feels like they’re tantalizing us with their brilliance. They write something that captures our attention, and then they further that original thought with another thought that brings us kicking and screaming to a point of identification. It’s almost as if they read our minds when they wrote that, we think. They’re pouring our heart out. We’re breathless with anticipation. We’re turning the pages of their book so quickly that we’re getting paper cuts.
Yes!” we scream. “Ohmycreator yes! That’s it! Sing it to me sista!”
Then, we arrive at the solution, if there ever was one, and we think we somehow got lost in the weeds, somewhere along the line. We retrace our steps, we turn back two of three pages, then twenty to thirty, and we can’t find where we lost the point. “What did he say?” we ask, and we hate ourselves for asking that. We hate it, because it reveals us as one of those that don’t understand. It lowers our ego just a tad, but we know that that philosopher was onto something —in some form of English that we barely understood— that left us hanging off the cliff, because we just didn’t understand their proposed solution. Somehow or another they didn’t do anything but correctly identify the problem without attempting a solution. We didn’t exactly drop off the cliff with disappointment, but the philosopher didn’t quite help us off it either. Not in the manner we thought they would when they swam so close to our Sun. What happened?
A scene from the television series Taxi captures this dilemma perfectly. In the scene, the character Latka is experiencing a multiple personality disorder. At one point in the episode, Latka begins to think he’s the Alex Reager character in every way, shape, and form. Latka reaches a point, in this disorder, where he’s figured out a solution to all that ails Alex, and he says so in a counseling session. He does so by listing all the flaws with Alex’s character, flaws Alex confirms, until Latka states that he’s found a solution to all that ails this Alex persona. This captures Alex’s attention. “It was so simple!” Latka says with an anticipatory Alex goading him on. “It was staring me in the face the whole time!” To each progression, Alex nears the Latka character saying: “Yes, ohmycreator yes!” until the two are inches away from one another with Alex panting in anticipation. Much to Alex’s disappointment, Latka snaps out of the personality disorder just short of revealing the solution, and he turns back into Latka. At that point, Alex begins griping Latka by the face, screaming at him to go back to being Alex for just a moment when Latka says: “Alex you’re squeezing me!”
The answer to the frustrations most agnostic consumers experience with philosophy, say philosophy students, is that it would be impossible for a philosopher to provide specific solutions to all of your individual problems. The purpose of philosophy, they would say, is to lead you into asking questions that you may have never thought of before; to give you another viewpoint on what may be troubling you; and to provide its adherents an all-encompassing blueprint for life that the reader can use to interpret and relate to their individual problems. The purpose is to get you thinking differently. The purpose is to get you thinking.
Why do we do the things we do? Why do we make choices and decisions in life? How do we make them? Who is affected by our decisions, and who do we factor into our decision making process? The purpose of philosophy is to get us to ask these questions and other questions of ourselves. Only by asking ourselves questions can we ever arrive at an answer that may suit our individual needs. Philosophy requires your participation. It requires active listening, and reading, and most of the solutions one finds in life will not be specifically lined up for you. Don’t take it out on philosophers, students of philosophy will say, if you are too lazy to interpret and relate such concepts and propositions to your life.
The problem for most of philosophy’s agnostics is that most philosophical concepts are espoused in such an academic sense. The philosophies of Nietzsche, Kant, Sartre, Plato, Aristotle and Sophocles, and Freud and Jung may apply to the modern day, and they may be the greatest thoughts man has ever had, but getting to the nut of what they’re saying requires too much interpretation for most modern day consumers. Most of the philosophers listed here spoke, and wrote, in a more proper, less relatable form of English, if they spoke in English at all. They also spoke/wrote in a vague manner that would be, and could be, so open to interpretation that it seems they never said anything specific. Some regard this as brilliant in that a reader could interpret the words for their own needs. Others regard it as frustratingly vague for the same reason. If these others, these agnostic types, do attempt to subject a philosopher’s thoughts and ideas to their problems, they get slapped back by strict interpretations provided to them by a Philosophy professor. These strict interpretations may take the vagueness out of the material, but it also takes away the individual’s joy of forming a belief on the philosopher’s concepts that may differ from the professor’s. The professor gives a “correct” interpretation and pulls out a red pen on any student that goes off that plantation. “I can see what you’re trying to say here,” the professor writes in red, “but it’s a lot more complicated than that.”
All of the philosophers listed here are much smarter than us, and they’ve developed some theories on the decisions and choices we make that could just blow our minds if we understood them properly. But those that teach us their theories get a little too far into the weeds for most of us. They get too professorial, they talk over our heads, and they fail to relay their concepts to us. Philosophy is then seen by the eager, young minds thirsting for new knowledge, as overly complicated, or so narrow that it doesn’t apply to them, irrelevant in the modern era, and something to be studied for a test … Nothing more and nothing less. Philosophy and psychology doesn’t have to be this way.
Philosophy also doesn’t have to be that which is espoused by an egghead, hippie type that attempts to intimidate the listener with punctuation-less sentences that contain as many multi-syllabic words as the hippie can think up that are backed up by obscure quotes from a similar philosopher that was obscure 400 years ago. These people also get a lot of mileage out of telling a listener what philosophy is not, based on these obscure quotes and references, that exhaust you, until you’re left with the empty feeling that it’s all too complicated for you to ever understand. You don’t want to admit such a thing though, so you just quietly walk away from philosophy with the idea that you’re just not smart enough to understand it. It shouldn’t be that way.
It should be the goal of all of those that love philosophy to carry the torch to the next generation. It should be their goal to drop the indulgence of proving their intelligence while proving their mastery of the subject matter at the same time. Combining these two appears to be too much for most philosophy lovers. They get so caught up trying to impress their peers that they forget to make their message appealing. They have a gift for draining the elemental gifts these philosophers have provided us right out of their lesson plans, but they don’t appear to care about the subject matter in this way. They appear to prefer the credo: “If no one knows what you’re talking about, no one can refute you.”
The question becomes how does one reach an audience of young computer-game, Google searchers with a limited attention span? Certain individuals in the entertainment milieus have done it in bite-sized morsels. They have used comedy to lubricate what is generally perceived to be the incomprehensible, rougher edges of philosophy, as witnessed in the episode of Taxi provided above. The clever minds of Taxi/Cheers fame, the writers of Seinfeld, and the Philosophy and… series of books have taken the relatively difficult concepts of Nietzsche, Kant, Sartre, Plato, Aristotle and Sophocles, and Freud and Jung and put them out to the mass consumers in comedic form to open the door to greater understanding. It can be done, in other words, and it should be done. A look through the best seller list, and the television ratings, shows that modern consumers are just as hungry for knowledge as they are entertainment, and the richest rewards lie out there for those that are able to do both in a highly skilled juggling act.
When our friends detail the plotline of such a comedy, and we inform them that it’s based on a philosopher’s concept, they’re intrigued. They may not care that it came from a man named Rousseau, and they may never turn around and read a single word of that man’s writings, but the idea that this man’s concept reached them intrigues them to learn more about the concept and the way it might affect their life. They may not have reached that concept in the manner a philosophy professor, or an uppity beatnik, would care for, but they still learned it, and their lives may eventually be all the better for it, and it may provide a window that once opened will be explored by eager young minds thirsting for knowledge.
The alternative to grasping these concepts, and subsequently living without a philosophical sense of life, is nihilism —the belief in nothing. Some nihilists even condemn atheists for their beliefs. Atheists may share the metaphysical belief that God doesn’t exist with nihilists, but where they divert is in the meaning of life. Atheists believe that one doesn’t have to believe in God for life to have meaning. Nihilism maintains that life has absolutely no meaning, purpose, or value, and the godfather of nihilism even went so far to write that Christianity may actually have more in common with nihilism than atheism does, based on the fact that Christians place less value on this life than they do the afterlife.
This absolute belief in nothing, when used in conversation, can be a contrarian tool that a self-proclaimed nihilist can use as a shield against attack. It may allow them to sit back with a smug smile while atheists and Christians attack one another with the mindset being that they may not believe in anything, but at least they’re not foolish enough to believe in something.
Nihilists usually wage a philosophical war on believers, studying up on your beliefs, your philosophy, or your religion, until they reach a point where they can proudly claim to know your belief system better than you do— or at least those that believe the same as you. The latter is an important distinction to make, for most nihilists usually don’t single you out for their criticism. They may actually go so far as to single you for support by saying that you’re not one of those they’re talking about, because you’re more open-minded, erudite, or one of the few that can speak about this rationally. Whatever guise they use to avoid further confrontation, they do so to complete their life’s mission of knocking everything everyone else believes in, by trying to keep it impersonal. To suggest that all nihilists operate in a nefarious manner with the sole goal of undermining belief, would be as incorrect as the comprehensive labels they attach to believers, but they do seek some sort of validation for their mindset from you the believer.
One of the reasons they need validation, is that when everything goes wrong in their life they know that they will be left with total devastation. The nihilist’s world exists on a precarious plane that there are certain truths that keeps them afloat. Most of their truths can be found in the routines of life: work, marriage, kids, friends, weekend fun, and politics. There is, however, no underlying foundation to nihilism, no meaning of life, no purpose, and no substantial reality in their lives to help them overcome a shakeup of one of these routines. There’s an old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and that cliché is based on the fact that in times of total devastation the human mind needs a plan B, a sense of life, a philosophy, a religion, or something to fall back on. Some say this need may actually be biological, or anatomical, but whatever the case is, it’s undeniable that we all need something to believe in, something greater than ourselves, and a plan B to fall back on when things don’t go as planned.