6 August 2007


At a wedding party I attended a few days ago, a man I didn't recognize (but who probably knows my parents) asked me 'what I am doing these days'. As I had been confronted with this question quite a few times before the same night, and as this question doesn't usually ignite a very interesting (or even any) discussion, I responded in a quite tired and bored tone that I am a student of Philosophy. Ignoring the tone of my voice, he started talking about why he couldn't see himself doing philosophy. He said that he imagines that philosophy requires quite a bit of patience, and he also told me he didn't really have much patience for "those types of questions". I agree with him that patience is important in doing philosophy, and I think, for me, this is what is most difficult in studying philosophy. (Usually, when people hear what it is that I am studying, they tell me that philosophical questions are too difficult for them. I was quite intrigued when it became clear that this person didn't at least mean this)

Of course, many jobs involve patience, many tasks require some form of persistence (I don't know whether that is the proper concept here). A computer consultant tries to find a solution to a specific problem - of course, her job requires that she does not give up easily - that she should try to consider as many possibilities as possible before she says that the problem cannot be fixed or that something "cannot be done". Quite a few years ago I had a summer job in a firm that provided washing services. I experienced my job as very boring and mind-numbing and all my strengths were engaged in simply being there, doing the job I was paid for - going through the same movements over and over again. Ths was a type of job where I constantly felt I could be doing something else, something more meaningful, but that I had no other choice than to try to focus and try to live through the day (time has never been as concrete as it was then).

But why would I say that in doing philosophy, patience is important? One aspect of the matter is surely psychological - managing to focus one's attention, not to let one's thoughts drift away. But I guess that is not very interesting (even though I suppose that was what the man at the wedding party was probably talking about) and I guess that this is true of many activities. Another aspect is of course that some philosophical texts are densely (not to say badly) written and that it is often very hard to understand what it is that people are writing about, why they are expressing something in a specific way, etc. At some point, I might feel like throwing the book away, exclaiming that this writer seems to have nothing to say to me, that all there is is an empty, intellectual excercise. Perhaps that is fully justified in some cases - but often it is not. For example, I find reading Heidegger rewarding, and once one becomes more familiar with the text, it is clear that it is not technical in the way many other - most - other philosophical texts are.

But even more important than that (philosophers whose foremost virtue is intellectual rigor are not the ones I would say I have learned the most from) philosophy requires that you think openly about questions - and this, of course, confronts you with how you yourself tends to think about things - I mean: philosophy confronts you with yourself. Here it is of course easy to shy away from the personal dimension of a question, transforming it into a completely technical, formal matter. I don't mean that philosophy is all about some form of "self-exploration" in some fuzzy, general sense (if at all). What I am talking about is something that I find to be the biggest danger in my own work: that I often loose a sense of why a question is a real, important one as I notice that it has started to become a technical matter, it has become evident that the question is no longer mine. This dimension of philosophy takes of course different shapes, depending on what subject matter one is occupied by (and in moral philosophy it is of course often a pressing issue). But also in general, I think something fishy is going one when philosophers are defending certain "positions" in particular "philosophical debates" - it appears then as if the discussion has lost everything that would otherwise make it a substantial exchange between people who are prepared to talk to each other about how they understand a particular issue - and why it is that somebody else would see it differently.

(I hope this didn't sound as if I were to list a number of "personal qualities" that are needed in doing philosophy - I was reflecting on what one may see as difficult or easy when being engaged in a philosophical discussion)

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