Pursuing wisdom as individuals

It seems like we might distinguish between two ways of pursuing wisdom (meaning: metaphysics and values). We might pursue wisdom as a society/culture/species, which would be something like a scientific approach to the questions “What is real?” and “What is valuable?” Or we might pursue those same questions as individuals: “What do I take to be real?” and “What do I take to be valuable?”

Of course, so long as these questions are asked by individuals, one would expect each individual to come up with the same answers to these sets of questions. (My answers won’t be different to “What is real?” and “What do I take to be real?”) But there still is a difference in the approaches. When I pursue wisdom as an individual, I am interested in working out who I am. Maybe I need to do this in order to sort out some confusion I’ve encountered, or to make sense of my past, or struggle through some obstacle in my path. It’s existential and more personal than when I pursue wisdom on behalf of my species, which I might do solely out of curiosity, or even as part of my job.

The distinction, I guess, amounts to whether philosophy is done personally or impersonally. I think philosophers typically try to do or at least present their philosophy impersonally, perhaps in the hope of emulating scientists. But there is a need to make philosophy personal; this is philosophy’s therapeutic value. Sometimes people don’t need psychological therapy so much as philosophical therapy, which targets the questions and problems people ought to have (as opposed to the ones they shouldn’t be burdened with).

Individuals, as they pursue wisdom in their own ways, can help each other along by asking probing questions and objections and insisting on authenticity. I can call you on the carpet, and ask whether you really believe what you are telling yourself; or how you square what you believe with other things you should believe; or whether you practice what you preach; and so on. You do the same to me. The big question — “But is what I believe really true?” — ends up getting set aside, since all we can really do, in the end, is work out our beliefs, and hope for the best. Or maybe the way to put it is this: we can only work out ourselves, and hope for the best.


30 thoughts on “Pursuing wisdom as individuals

  1. Kleiner

    I certainly agree that philosophy should be a personal exercise (a “way of life”). Frankly, it is the responsibility of people like Huenemann and I to organize and teach our classes so that students have this expereince. Otherwise we can hardly blame people for thinking that philosophy is just a bunch of abstract musings that are completely impersonal.

    But why do we need to give up on the big question – “But is what I believe really true?” Is Huenemann presupposing a coherentist epistemological view here? On such a view, justification could only be sorted out by looking at how our beliefs relate to one another.

    While I do not want to resort to a foundationalist or a correspondance theory of truth (I am totally convinced by Heidegger’s critique of these), I still think we could have a “truth as aletheia” view (a la Heidegger) that still allows us to look for a kind of “justification” that looks to the thing itself (rather than just seeing if all of our beliefs happen to hang together). One virtue of this view is that it forces philosophy to be personal: the view of truth as aletheia (un-covering or disclosure) means that philosophy always has to be existentially lived, since it will always be rooted in our concrete experience with the world.


  2. Huenemann Post author

    I know I’m not presupposing a coherentist view. It’s more a consequence of my skepticism: I don’t believe we can work out what’s really true, at least not on deep and important matters, and so we can only work out what we believe (and that only if we’re lucky!). I think I reject Hd’s and Husserl’s phenomenology, so I don’t think we have access to anything as it is in itself, or even whether there is any such thing. It’s perfectly possible, on my view, to sensitively work out one’s beliefs with the greatest circumspection and authenticity and yet be utterly and horribly wrong, down to one’s very socks. But I find there to be an intrinsic value to trying to gain authenticity — it feels good, and is fun, even if our situation is hopeless. Does that make sense?


  3. Doug

    I completely agree with you Dr. Hunemann. I have been asked many times by my friends that find philosophy interesting but ultimately useless in accomplishing truth, why I continue to study philosophy if I personally believe we can never (never in the” what we know now sense”) really work out what is really true in the “deep and important matters” (since these are the questions I find most interesting in philosophy). My answer is always that I believe that there is an intrinsic value in pursuing what one believes to be right, and continuing to pursue the truth. It is fun as well, but I also believe that when one continues to develop a philosophy or ideology based upon several different facts and factors, then one begins to discover themselves as well as what they believe.

    It seems that many people just accept what is given to them. For example, many people raised say in a Catholic family may continue to call themselves Catholic and accept those beliefs even though they have never tried learning about any other religions, ideologies, or creeds. Those that pursue truth may still find themselves agreeing with the Catholic faith in the end, but they will have a greater understanding of why they chose to believe in what they do; as well as why they chose not to believe in other religions or atheism. Does that make sense? Probably not!!

    Anyway, I know that what I believe (at least parts of what I believe) continually change based upon new things I learn and come upon. It seems vital to me that we continuously pursue the truth (or our “personal truth anyway”) in order for us to individually establish our core values and beliefs. I realize I am being fairly vague, but I do agree that we cannot really work out what is true in the “deep and important matters”, but it is necessary to continue to try for personal growth.


  4. Kleiner

    I think that everyone would agree that it is good and important to work out one’s beliefs with great circumspection and an open mind to alternative points of view. Where I disagree with Huenemann is in his skepticism. If we deny from the outset the possibility that our beliefs actually refer to anything, I guess I am not so sure what the point of the investigation is. Sure, it might be fun and might feel good, but at that point it becomes a mere “pastime” with no particular claim on us. That is a far cry from the kind of nobility the philosophical task has to my mind.
    I’m not saying it is easy to discern truth – just that it is possible. I am not sure I could prove my position (it is really a first principle), but I have an especially strong attachment to the view that man and world have some interface. My theological commitments buttress my taking this as something of a first principle of reason and inquiry.
    I wonder why it would have never really occurred to the ancients or medievals (prior to nominalism) to think the way Huenemann does, and to worry so about skepticism. Was it mere naivite? I think not. I rather think that the problem is a very modern bias – namely that ideas become the object of thought rather than the world. A Thomistic view where ideas are instruments that point to something (rather than being ends themselves) seems, on all sorts of different levels including plain old common sense, to make a whole lot more sense to me both in philosophical argument and my everyday lived experience.


  5. Kleiner

    One more thought, if we are just doing philosophy for “fun” and for “personal growth”, why do philosophy instead of watching Oprah or reading Dr. Phil? Have you backed yourself into a corner of having no better response than “I just happen to prefer this to that”?


  6. Doug

    First I would like to sadly state that more people really do obtain their beliefs and achieve their “personal growth” from watching Oprah and Dr. Phil then actually reading or studying philosophy. (At least it appears that way given the number or people that actually chose philosophy as a major field of study, and the number of people that watch Oprah and Dr. Phil eternally expand)

    I suppose I may have given the impression that I believe philosophy is only useful in obtaining personal growth and a good time; however, that was not my intention. I was merely agreeing that I believe that whether or not one can or does obtain a certain truth while studying philosophy, there is always that added benefit of fun and personal growth.

    When I stated that I do not believe we “can never know” the deep and important truths (ex. god’s existence, providence, etc) I meant that it seems to me that given where we are now it does not appear we will just find the truth in these questions, and if we “find” the truth in these questions (as a skeptic-thank you Hume) how will we know its the actuall truth? If we begin to follow what we suddenly agree must be truth, is there a way to know that we are not “utterly and horribly wrong, down to one’s socks” (ex. the world is flat)? That being said I believe it is our fundamental and inherent nature to try and discover truth; therefore philosophy (and science, all though I believe they go hand-in-hand-oh, and I nearly forgot religion) is the way in which we attempt to fulfill our desire for truth.

    I think the greatest thing philosophy can do to inch us closer to truth is help us discern what it not true. I know its not popular to say in the philosophy department, but if philosophy cranked out proven truths left and right the number of interested candidates would seriously increase. Philosophy is a slow and methodical vehicle for discovering truth, but has proven to be (in my opinion) a very accurate vehicle to do so (meaning religion leaves to many questions, science doesnt have all the answers, so we must use a slower and more accurate way of determining the truth). In other words, we chose to do philosophy to discover truths (even though we may end up beliving those things that are false) because it seems to be our best vehicle (used in the Buddhist way) to do so, and at the very least achieve a personal growth in the process…

    I am sure that made no sense to anyone but me!!


  7. Huenemann Post author

    Actually I think my brand of skepticism was well-known to the ancients. Right now I’m reading Popkin’s “History of skepticism” which begins with a run-down of the ancient schools, and mine is a relatively tame skepticism compared to some others. (Some schools denied that not even “Nothing can be known” can be known!) I do want to say that there is some interface between mind and world — certainly, for humdrim truths like “Logan is north of Ogden” and “The ketchup is in the fridge,” etc., we do model reality quite accurately. But it is as if there’s an inverse relation between the philosophical significance of a claim and our ability to know it, perhaps because language works best when tied to ordinary, graspable objects, and gets looser as it topics get more abstract. My own skepticism is meant to be Socrates’s in the Apology, who seemed to think we somehow get nudged along in the direction of true opinion, without having much by way of justification. Maybe I’d go a bit further than him, claiming that we can’t really be sure our opinions are true; we just settle upon them.

    Why then do philosophy? Well, as I said, I just find it intrinsically valuable, in the way that fun is. There really isn’t a good answer to “Why is fun valuable?” other than “It just is.” Same for philosophy: it is often fun, but that is not its only brand of value. It just is valuable, or so it seems to me. I don’t think it is necessarily a good instrument for getting truth, and certainly not for getting wealth or honor, or hot dates, but it “feels good” to do, like exercise of a spiritual variety.


  8. Kleiner

    I shouldn’t have implied that there was no skepticism in the ancient world. But the kind of skepticism (whether this is Huenemann’s brand or not) that is most common today (a kind of near paraodoid fear that we are not getting to the real thing “out there”) would have been pretty foreign to most ancient and medieval minds.
    I supposed Huenemann to be siding with that more modern Cartesian-bred skepticism when he above allowed that he wasn’t even sure if there is such a thing as reality (a thing in itself). That kind of skepticism, to my mind, would have been very foreign to the Socrates of the Apology. Maybe Huenemann was just being blustery there. His more recent moderated skepticism I find more palatable.
    Still, at some point don’t you have to decide between these two:
    Either (a) the world is knowable or (b) the world is not knowable.
    I would side with (a), but add the caveat that our task of knowing won’t be very easy. Impossible for our finite minds? If you are talking “justified true beliefs” with regard to first philosophy, probably. But I resist differentiating too much between the “humdrum” and the “profound”. I find the Aristotelian/Thomistic story that finds the profound (say, forms) enmattered in the ordinary (something of a philosophical incarnationalism) very attractive. In that sense, I have a pretty high regard for human reason.


  9. Mike

    I’m not sure why you’d have to decide between ‘the world is knowable’ and ‘the world is not knowable’ it seems like you could just as easily think some parts of the world are knowable.


  10. Huenemann Post author

    By the way, Doug, do you really believe it is our “fundamental and inherent nature to try and discover truth”? I thought your experience with gov’t — not to mention the casino! — would have disabused you of that!


  11. Huenemann Post author

    Excellent points, Vince! I guess I tend to think of the things scientists discover (like evolution and global warming) as relatively settled — trying to forget the cranks in our society who drum up spurious counter-arguments in support of their blinkered ideologies. But you are right: we are all on this boat together, and we share the responsibility of bringing about unified thought and action in a sensible and humane direction.


  12. Kleiner

    Classically at least, the “bar” one must meet for phronesis (or episteme/science for that matter) is much lower than for sophia. Insisting on something like “absolute certainty” in questions of action (say, climate change) misunderstands the nature of practical inquiry – as Aristotle says in NE, it demands more rigor than is proper to that field.
    Those that demand “irrefutable proof” (which in Vince’s case above means not only providing empirical data but also disproving any possible counter-args) are simply asking for more than is reasonably necessary. Unfortunately, prudence (and the art of knowing when further argument is required, which is part of wisdom for Aristotle) died even before God and science!

    Regarding philosophical skepticism: as you can likely tell from my remarks above, I don’t even think “absolute certainty” (read “indubitability”) is required for knowledge in first philosophy. When will the spectre of Descrartes finally fade away?!


  13. Doug

    To anwer your question Dr. Huenemann, I would say yes I do believe it is our nature to find “truth”. I probably used a bit of strong language when I said “fundamental”, but I do believe we all seek truth. The problem is that truth is so different for everyone. What I mean is that it seems that everyone has some sort of belief what is true and what is not; not only religiously but scientifically, philosophically, etc. You can stop anyone on a street corner and ask them what is true and they will tell you what they believe. In fact once a month here in Logan I have a pair of young 19 year old gentlemen that come to my door and profess that thay “know what is true” and they even give me testimony to back up their supposed absolute truth. That does not mean that they are not completely wrong however.

    All of the politicians that I have worked for (both good and bad) have distinct truths that they believe. Some were Christian, Athiest, and Agnostic. Some believed that universal healthcare was a right (Constitutionally) for all citizens, some believed that it is the “American way” to have everyone obtain their own health insurance, retirement money, and even education. These men and women seek out what they believe to be truth, and then try to impose their truth on to the public. Of course I have also worked with and known politicians that find truth in which ever interest group pays them the most as well!! Certainly in this case one could argue that they avoid what they believe to be true and follow what another group believes.

    During my short time working in a casino, I dealt with people that were very serious about seeking truth in gambling (granted I am only talking about small truths in this particular example). Every real gambler studied each individual game from poker (notice how many different books there are on this subject alone, all giving different ways to win) to blackjack and craps. Most gamblers tried several different ways to approach each game to give a winning outcome. Once they find one that seems to give them positive results, they deem that the way (or truth in this case) they must play the game. I observed and talked with many players that had a system for everything they did-from the bet size down to tip for the dealer. There are so many how to books sold for gambling that it is a multi-billion dollar industry now. Why is that? It seems that everyone wants to find what works and is true for them.

    Now, this in my opinion, is a lot like how people seek truth in life. They try on different “helmets” or read different books and decide what is true and works for them. This is why there are so many religions, philosophies, creeds, etc. People look for answers they have about existence, life, etc and attempt to fill their questions with what they find to be the truth. In this way I believe we all seek truth; however, the problem still exists-how do we know what we believe to be true is true? I still dont believe that we can ever really know what is true regarding the really important questions (and in many ways the easy questions).

    Does this makes sense? I guess what I am saying is that we all seem to seek some sort of truth, what is truth and whether or not it really is truth is another question.


  14. Huenemann Post author

    Aha! I think you have put your finger on something which, I would agree, is central in human nature: the desire to convince ourselves that we know the truth.


  15. Mike

    Charlie– Would you say that your philosophical approach values meaning over truth? Or possibly finds truth in meaning?

    It seems like ‘truth’ implies getting your conceptions to correspond with reality but that doesn’t necessarily do anything to who you are. Your method implies a personal impact.

    I’ve seen people pursuing meaning do all sorts of awesome things and I’ve seen others pursuing truth do all sorts of armchair things.


  16. Kleiner

    Perhaps I am putting words in Huenemann’s (and others) mouth here, but most of the skeptical worries seem to be concerned with getting indubitably certain correspondance between “in here” ideas and the “out-there” world. Contra Vince, I think Descartes is largely to blame for this (though not solely). Anyway, this is why I think the spectre of Descartes still looms so large.
    At any rate, I am not sure the truth as correspondance view of truth (between in-here and out-there) is the best view to hold. Heidegger’s truth as aletheia (un-covering) deconstructs that subject-object split and also does not so disassociate truth from meaning (since all disclosures happen within the interpretative context of the “worldhood of the world” which is a fundamental existential structure of Dasein or the human being).
    Note also that this makes philosophy necessarily personal in the way Huenemann thinks it should be.


  17. Mike

    I’m much more influenced by Wittgenstein than Heidegger but I’ve heard


    there are quite a few similarities. Still I think we have to address a ‘lay’ conception of truth and I’m wary of creating/using unique language in order get one’s point across.

    I do hope to understand Heidegger sometime soon. I keep putting him off.

    Quote from that essay… “Far from being a difficulty that must be faced in the name of intellectual rigor and methodological scrupulousness, skepticism presents a symptom of our way of inhabiting our condition. Or so both late Heidegger and late Wittgenstein would show us.”


  18. Huenemann Post author

    I think my skepticism largely targets so-called “first philosophy,” or philosophy that aims at metaphysical truth: what sorts of things are real? Bodies and souls? God? What features does matter really have? Can there be empty space? What is causation? Must there be a cause of the whole world? That variety of question. Philosophy’s track record here is abysmal. Science’s record is abysmal too — nearly everything any scientist has said has been decisively refuted — but at least scientists do not (or should not) claim that what they said was certain and necessary, as metaphysicians are wont to do. They made guesses, which turned out to be wrong, but led to somewhat better guesses, etc. And I don’t think it helps to place the metaphysical entities, like forms, closer to hand; it still strikes me as probably wrong, or at best irrefutable and superfluous. That old law, “Nature is cleverer than you are,” makes metaphysics a hard game to win. The skeleton of our reason simply doesn’t mirror the skeleton of reality, at least not down to a fine level of detail. Now if someone just wants to see metaphysics as a poetic way of describing things, or as a sometimes useful heuristic in narrowly defined contexts, then I guess I have no objection. But typically that is not how people see metaphysics.

    No matter, say I. There’s still plenty of work for philosophy to do. There’s ethics, for one thing. And there’s the pursuit of meaning, which is always with us no matter how far science progresses. As much as we learn, or think we have learned, about the world and ourselves through the natural sciences and social sciences, there remains the question, “So what?” How do I live my life, given what I know? What is important, if anything?

    Do I value meaning over truth? Well, if someone could give me an injection that would make me feel as if my life had meaning when really it did not — say, it turned me into a bare-headed Hare Krishna, joyously selling pencils at airports — I would respectfully decline. But if I had the choice between (a) authentically working out my beliefs, among my friends, and settling upon a view of life that made it seem meaningful, a view which actually turned out to be false, and (b) getting a download of truth which led to a miserable and pointless-feeling life, I would choose (a).

    For crying out loud, who wouldn’t?!


  19. Huenemann Post author

    Yes, Neo: Keanu Reeve’s most memorable role, other than that of “Ted.”

    Even so: what if Neo “awoke” not to find himself the prophetic hero of an elite band of granola-crunching revolutionaries, but having to live a life even more lonely and boring than the one he lived inside the matrix? What if in “New Zion” he were assigned the role of Morpheus’s dog-walker?


  20. Mike

    I particularly liked this comment from page 39 of the essay I posted earlier:

    “An alternative interpretation is available, on which Wittgenstein invites something like the standard interpretation but contests its terms. He writes, “What has to be accepted, the given, is-so one could say-forms of life” (PI p. 226). This pronouncement does not dictate a complacent acceptance of a conventional or natural basis for our practices; rather, our human forms of life comprise our practices, are constituted by our responses and agreements within them. Our necessities are internal to the practices that make up our forms of life; form of life does not explain them. And if we cannot make sense of what our responses, agreements, and necessities are except from within our practices, then there is no place outside them from which a coherent, uniform demand for their overarching justification can be raised. Wittgenstein’s attempt to teach us “not, to dig down to the ground” but, “to recognize the ground before us as the ground” (RFM VI 31) is intended to get us to see that the normative authority of our form of life cannot present a general problem to be resolved once and for all, on pain of skepticism. This is hardly to say that there are no circumstances in which the normative authoritv of the ‘we’ is at issue. Rather, ‘we’ are those to whom we can talk; to whom we can talk, and about what, are ongoing questions, ones that we work out only in talking. In other words, whatever normative authority there is is our own; particular issues concerning with whom I can find my capacity to make sense may always arise. As form of life-it is tempting to say, with the Heidegger of Being and Time, as Being-in-the-world-we are always already situated, in the sense that our interests in things, our responses to them, and our abilities to communicate about them are already in play, even when they are up for grabs. Seen in this light, skepticism is revealed as an impulse to move outside our agreements, an expression of dissatisfaction with the human. As such it remains a standing possibility, a reminder that we may at any point fail to find ourselves in our agreements and necessities as they stand.'”


  21. Kleiner

    On Huenemann’s post on Neo (would he be so happy if the the truth of his life was boring):
    What about Nozick’s Experience Machine?


  22. Kleiner

    With the Heidegger talk we are wading into muddy waters that are hard to work through without everyone having read certain texts. Still, I’ll try to respond to some prior posts.

    1. On Descartes: In the Meditations, Descartes clearly makes ideas the objects of knowledge (rather than treating ideas as dynamic instruments that point out to the world). It is not really until Meditation VI that he finally concludes that any of his finite ideas have any referent outside of his own mind. I would need to look back to make sure I have these terms right, but the Meditations are concerned with drawing some correspondence between the “in-here” reality (“objective reality”) of ideas and the “out-there” reality (“formal reality”) of the world. Granted, one could well argue that this is older than Descartes.
    By the way, the way of thinking (which Vince calls “a reality”) that presumes an “in-here/out-there” was not born of Zeus’ thigh. That manner of thinking has a history (one which can be deconstructed) – it trades on metaphysical concepts that developed over time and that do not necessarily reflect our actual concrete experience with the world (hence Heidegger’s insistence that we start with “everydayness”).

    2. I don’t think Heidegger’s meaning remains “self” just because he uses the word “existential”. He does not mean “existential” in at all the way someone like Sartre does (who, as he himself says in the intro to Being and Nothingness, starts with the Cartesian ego). Heidegger, on the other hand, wants to altogether avoid the dualism of “self-world”, so asking questions in terms of the “substantive self” is hard for Heidegger since he rejects those categories to start with. Heidegger is careful to never use words/concepts like “reality” or “self” or “subject”, etc. They all have too much metaphysical baggage. Even words like “world” take on very different meanings in Heidegger.

    Clearly Kant had a great influence on Heidegger, but as Heidegger says in Being and Time, Kant has [at least one] fatal flaw – he starts with the Cartesian ego. In that sense Kant cannot escape the dualistic metaphysics/”technological thinking” of ego over world.
    So I would spin Heidegger a bit differently than Vince did. Vince said that “we sense and categorize the thing but we never name the reality of the thing”, but notice that this still starts with the “in-here/out-there” dichotomy that Heidegger is so eager to avoid.

    What is distinctive about Dasein (human being) is that we are the being for whom Being is a question. But we do not ask the question of Being on our own subjective terms. Rather, just as much as we ask the question of Being so the question of Being asks us. This is especially noteable in our everyday dealings with the world – I disclose something more basic about the hammer in “dealings” with the world (my actual hammering) than when I encounter the hammer in an attempt to epistemically define it as present-at-hand.
    Heidegger is also fascinated with “things”. But we do not make sense of things based on some “self-contained subjectivity” – instead just as much as we shepherd things into meaning so things shepherd us into meaning. Over and against egological metaphysics, Heidegger has a relational ontology (this is the Buberian connection that I think Vince will dig).

    3. All that said, Vince is right that the question of the “we” (the contemporary lingo is to call it the question of the “Other”) remains quite ambiguous in Heidegger. Levinas is critical of Heidegger on this point, as is Derrida. Frankly I think they are both wrong, and that there is room for the Other in Heidegger (actually, that was the argument of my dissertation).

    But finding the Other in Heidegger is not all that easy. In Being and Time he calls “being-with-others” a basic existential feature of Dasein (note that he does not even want to use the term “human being” since even that has too much metaphysical baggage). Throughout Heidegger’s work there is a heavy emphasis on truth and meaning arising out of relationship (something likely borrowed from Kierkegaard), but Heidegger tends to focus (especially “early Heidegger”) on Dasein’s relationship with Being (neutered and anonymous) rather than others (persons). Later Heidegger becomes, with some work, much closer to the latter.


  23. Mike

    I think Charlie wants to retain a more full blown skepticism than in my earlier quote. I’ve heard him say, not in these exact words, something like the quote below also from p. 39.

    “Wittgenstein’s refusal hardly seems to yield a satisfying response to skepticism. True, our eyes are shut to the skeptic’s doubts (v. PI p. 224); however, in the skeptic’s eyes, we have deliberately avoided a perfectly legitimate effort to question the credentials of our taken-for-granted ways of proceeding. All we have provided is a less than reassuring reminder that, as a contingent matter of fact, we are absorbed in our form of life; we have given no indication as to why we should not be concerned with whether the resultant ‘orientation’ is, on account of its ‘parochiality’, radically out of tune with things. Skepticism, in other words, harbors a fear that ‘form of life’ provides a merely conventional or for that matter a merely natural basis of our ways of going on, neither of which can account for its putative normative force. At bottom, appealing to an “underived but not self grounding” form of life does nothing in the skeptic’s eyes to banish the specter of arbitrariness that haunts grounds such as these.”

    What I’d be interested to hear though is his response to that alternative view which I quoted earlier.

    On a slightly different topic, I’m pretty stuck on the idea that ‘there must be a way of understanding the world that is not an interpretation’ (also p. 39). Which is a lot of my problem with the very idea of ‘worldviews’ as the word is often used.

    I think I’m comfortable with the more ‘alternative’ moderated Wittgensteinian skepticism which is more of a skepticism in an ordinary sense, I’m skeptical that a number of ‘worldviews’ are really ‘forms of life’ (meaningful) and not simply based on philosophical games. I find Vonnegut’s skepticism exactly appropriate. This is also another reason I attribute some value to the monastic traditions both Buddhist and Christian where they demand a particular way of living. A genuine change I think is a change in way of life.

    I think both the Wittgensteinian and the Heideggerian perspectives are a bit hard to grasp. For me with Wittgenstein at least I think at some point it just clicked and I got it but it took a while. Then again I have the problem of trying to make particular philosophies what I want them to be instead of just trying to understand them as I should, as a good listener.


  24. Huenemann Post author

    Mike – I’ll probably have to study the essay you’ve quoted, since it’s a bit too thick for my shallow mind. (I don’t get it.) My handy understanding of Wittgenstein is just this: pay attention to the actual way we come to learn how to use the words, and especially how we learn we’ve used them incorrectly, and don’t tolerate any uses of words which couldn’t have been taught in straightforward, natural ways. I’m not sure how to connect this handy reading to the more complex thoughts in your quotes.

    Harrison — experience machine? That’s a toughie. For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, Nozick’s experience machine is basically the matrix: a machine that provides you with startlingly life-like experiences. I think nearly everybody would say they would prefer a real life to a qualitatively-identical life inside the machine. I’m not sure why people believe that, but that’s what they say. One has to be careful here not to drag in extra baggage: normally, when we think of being locked in a box, we associate the idea (not unreasonably) with imprisonment, exploitation, cruelty, loss of autonomy, etc. But don’t bring that stuff in here. We’re supposed to focus very narrowly on whether the fact that an experience is veridical gives it any more value to me — even if this is a fact I never ever come to know — than a subjectively-identical experience that is not veridical. And honestly I can’t see an answer to that.

    Drink a glass of water. Now imagine someone saying, “Would you rather have that same experience again, but this time with a real glass of water?” You say yes, and drink another glass of water. It tastes just the same. “Which do you prefer?” Huh?

    Now let’s change things a bit. Suppose reality sucks. Suppose you can choose between living through meaningless, sucky reality and living a pleasant, illusory life in the machine. (No, not the unicorn, candy mountain life; a really good, introspective, philosophically fulfilling life, like the one you are trying to live right now.) Which would you choose?

    To me, this is a no-brainer!


  25. Kleiner

    What I find noteworthy in Huenemann’s response to the Experience Machine is this:

    “Suppose you can choose between living through meaningless, sucky reality and living a pleasant, illusory life in the machine. (No, not the unicorn, candy mountain life; a really good, introspective, philosophically fulfilling life, like the one you are trying to live right now.) Which would you choose?”

    Huenemann’s seems to assume that a “philosophically fulfilling” life need not bear any necessary relation to truth (reality). I find that very odd.

    What is philosophy? If it is the ‘love and pursuit of wisdom’, then what is widsom? Surely wisdom has something to do with the truth about reality, doesn’t it?! (whether that be the truth about my real condition and nature, or the real condition and nature of other things). Is anyone else uncomfortable with the way Huenemann has so distanced the task of philosophy from what it has always been? Aren’t philosophers rather like children – enamored with the task of discovery and in that sense “other-directed” (which implies something more than solipsistic self-reflection inside an illusory but pleasant experience machine)?


  26. Huenemann Post author

    Yes, I fully embrace the claim that a philosophically-fulfilling life need not bear any necessary relation to truth/reality. Indeed, the history of philosophy suggests that most philosophers are quite out of touch with reality — and yet many have led philosophically-fulfilling lives (or so I would hope). If the philosophical merits of Hegel, Plato, Aristotle, Berkeley, and Spinoza were contingent upon how much truth they managed to capture, then I would think they all are (mostly) worthless.

    But again: I’m no hedonist. A philosophically-fulfilling life might be an intense struggle, difficult and painful. (Remember, I’s a disciple of Nietzsche.) Pleasure is not the reward; a feeling of intellectual/spiritual depth, significance, or growth is the reward. But getting that evidently doesn’t require getting things “right.” (I realize that in my last post I did refer to a “pleasant” life. Probably shouldn’t have. It would be nice to have a philosophically-fulfilling life that was also pleasant, but the two do not always come together, alas.)


  27. Kleiner

    I don’t think I made my point clear, since Huenemann took it in a different direction.
    It is not that I want to judge the philosophical merits of Hegel, Plato, Aristotle, etc. merely on how much truth they managed to capture (though that certainly has to be part of my judgment).

    My point about philosophy being connected to wisdom/truth was not that all philosophers are successful (few or likely none really are). Rather my point was that the task of philosophy is necessarily tied to the pursuit of wisdom (whether it is successful or not). I am speaking to the telos of philosophy (whether the telos is actualized or not). Philosophy is a personal task that one takes up – and its end is wisdom. Do we achieve wisdom? – no. But is that the natural trajectory of the task philosophers choose? yes.

    Why truth, why not untruth? Nietzsche belies a terrible misunderstanding of the nature of man here (in my view). I think man is naturally ordered (teleologically) to truth and love. We are hardly ever successful at answering the call, but it is our call. I am reading Augustine’s Confessions again right now for a book club, and he nails it: “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till the rest in Thee.” If Socrates is the philosopher par excellence (I think we would all agree to that), isn’t his philosophical life rather the same (substitute impersonal Forms for the personal God of Augustine)? In other words, philosophy is teleologically ordered to truth/wisdom/the real.


  28. Doug

    This is completley off topic but I was hoping (since I dont know how or cant post a topic on here) that we can have a discussion and generate some ideas as to how we can bring more students to this website as well as to the many philosophy discussions, debates, clubs, etc we have on campus. I realize when Fall Semester begins a few more students will find their way on here, but I have always had the feeling we dont reach out to the rest of the campus. Every seminar we have usually only contains a small amount of students, and I would say generally those students are already majoring or minoring in philosophy. I dont believe it is because philosophy is boring to people, I believe that nobody (especially student reps) are reaching out to the rest of the student body. Does this bother anybody else?

    I believe that at least part of learning and studying philosophy is obtaining and reviewing as many NEW and diverse points of view as possible, and it does not seem that we can fully accomplish this if we only stay with in our department. I believe students from all backgrounds including students studying English, Science, Engineering, Poli Sci, and even FHD can add a very special element that we may not think of in a normal philosophical setting (meaning all we seem to conjure up in every argument is something some philosopher wrote many years ago). I am in no way diminishing the great accomplishments of any philosopher merely stating that some fresh ideas and opinions should be welcomed. Oh, and I should note that this is not in anyway against anything that has been written on here, it just occured to me that we rarely seem to have a vast amount of input at any philosophical discussion, debate, or siminar (most especially from students).

    Anyway I would certainly volunteer my help in bringing more people in as much as possible. A student can attend Cisco meetings and inform them of up coming discussions or seminars, or attend group meetings around campus and invite them to join us. If anybody else has ideas as to how we can do this, or if we should do this I would appreciate your input!


  29. Kleiner

    Great ideas Doug. Dr. Huenemann and I have had several conversations about how we might reach out to the broader campus community (beyone just philosophy majors) to (a) grow the major and (b) encourage better attendance/participation in philosophy club events and this blog. We have some ideas (I think you will see an organized and committed effort to start the new school year) – but we’ll start a post on this to gather more ideas (I’ll try to do that Charlie, but I have not created a new stream yet so we’ll see if I can figure it out).
    Thanks for your energy, commitment, and input!



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