of being in academia and of becoming…

Posted by Daniela Elza on Nov 13 2007

I am back at the university, in the Philosophy of Education cohort. I am again steeped in the thinkers, myself thinking with their thoughts. A constant stream flows through me, no matter whether I am cooking, or showering kids. Big questions do their rounds in my head. What is the nature of Being? What is Becoming? Do we have adequate enough explanations that matter for the world today? And occasionally settle some thoughts down on a piece of paper. For a peace of mind… I go to poetry to nourish myself. Some philosophy texts can suck you dry, can starve the soul, can tamper with poetic consciousness, and some can fill your being and becoming with new horizons. For now I take the approach that I am not ready for some of these texts yet, even if it is just to be polite.

Philosophy is so much about interpreting and re-interpreting the canon. Again I feel a novice here. Last time I read some of the canon (like Plato’s Republic) I was a different person than I am now. I see it differently. What is to become of this cannon if I can change my interpretation of it? How much of a canon is it? And when does this beast go off? Maybe for now humility should be my guide, an acceptance of “not knowing”… of never knowing enough… of allowing to be wrong…

I am always wary that when I read someone’s ideas I cannot tell what they mean in general, because they always mean in particular to me. I am even curious if we CAN claim what some philosopher believes with certainty.That maybe even goes back to Socrates who did not write
anything down. And some of these philosophers we read in translation (we can only know about what they mean through their words, once or twice removed).

In some ways I feel we are building interpretations like edifices in academia, like buildings to be negotiated. These building define how we will move inside the ideas that have shaped them. We will rarely move the walls around, or change the shape of the roof, but most likely
we will arrange the office or our cubicle/corner to our liking.

It strikes me how easily we throw around the names of philosophers as if they are adjectives, as if it is clear what we mean by Hegelian, or Kantian, or… (put in your favorites here). Isn’t that the ultimate “essentializing” (i hope I am using this word correctly). Can we sum up a lifetime of ideas in one word? But somehow, it is ok, it is accepted, and it is a sign of a well-read/knowledgable person.

Why don’t I hear people ask, you mean Newton in the sense of laws of motion, or Newton as an alchemist? These thinkers we take to be only what we have decided is important about them, and what is important about them comes to us, in many ways, already decided.

Frank Dobie says:

“The average Ph.D. thesis is nothing but a transfer of bones from one graveyard to another….”

“If during a decade a man does not change his mind on some things and develop new points of view, it is a pretty good sign that his mind is petrified and need no longer be accounted among the living.”

These (chosen to be edified) thinkers went through their own course of emergenc(e),
and I think it is a bit arrogant to assume that with narrowing them down to one adjective we are doing them justice. Maybe that is when they die a second time.

So this is my pondering today and it usually gets exacerbated during and after conferences.
I am left with the question: What is philosophy? How can we make philosophy useful?

Euripides said: “Vain is the word of the philosopher if it does not heal any suffering of man…”
In The Participatory Mind, Henryk Skolimowski says:

“Genuine philosophy for our times must help us to understand the universe in a new way and help us to live in it. It must address itself to the total person, his quest for understanding, for meaning, for consolation.”

I am very excited to be working with people who are showing an awareness of the inadequacy of the rational legacy of philosophy as we know it. I am hoping that higher relevance will come with that. And will leave with a hopeful quote again from Henryk Skolimowski:

“Our essential freedom and creativity are not little gifts added to our humdrum existence but the very prerequisites of our existence in the new evolutionary participatory world. We are doomed to freedom. We are doomed to creativity.”


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