August 20, 2014

Notes on Understanding beyond Knowing

While I was in the middle of reading David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” I was suddenly reminded of the irrelevant fact that he was a philosophy (and English) major in college (Thank you, Wikipedia). This distraction caused by the human capacity to recall information obtained in the past brought to mind another, more personal memory about a comment my mother made a long time ago. As to why it took me a decade to realize how disturbing and offensive the comment was, I don’t know, but then again hindsight is supposedly 20/20. Upon realizing that my mind had already wandered off too far from Dave’s journalistic adventures in the Midwest, I knew it was time for me to put the book down and respond to my thoughts.

Approximately ten years ago, one of my father’s coworkers was, for a variety of reasons, pathetically unpopular in the community we—or rather, my parents—dwelled in. I was too young to understand how adults can be cruel the way children can be cruel (spend a few hours at your local playground and you’ll understand). At the time, I was unaware of the destructiveness of social alienation. I don’t think I even tried to comprehend the situation, but I was nonetheless a bystander, so at least I knew that something was going on. I can’t reconstruct the events the led to my mother’s declaration of her observation, but I do remember what she said: “He graduated with a degree in Philosophy; of course he’s strange.”

Perhaps she had a point. People who study philosophy probably are a little strange, but strangeness is relative. Without a “normal” group to function as the pivot of society, the tiny fraction that is considered “strange” wouldn’t be strange at all. I am writing this not because I sympathize with the man (I don’t know him personally), but because I sympathize with his interest; namely philosophy. What I think is strange is the way my mother used the poor man’s philosophical education to make sense of his strange behaviour.

I am not a philosopher, nor have I received proper academic training in philosophy, but I respect those who refuse to succumb to mainstream thinking, or what I’d like to refer to as the “automatic consumption of information.” It is too easy to go about one’s day without ever questioning why we do certain things and why others don’t: the illusion of a frictionless existence. Oppositely, one might also harvest anger within themselves because they do certain things that others don’t and vice versa, but anger and disappointment aren’t exactly useful sentiments—at best, one’s rage raises public awareness of certain issues; at worst, riots and wars happen.

Being for or against something for the sake of being for or against something will not solve even the most mundane of humanity’s woes. Understanding the reasons that drive others to do what they do only completes half of the equation. Understanding the reasons that drive us to do certain things is just as important in the quest to come to terms with the diversities of ideas, opinions and ways of life. 

As much as I am saddened by the way the majority of communities that highly value practical pursuits disregard philosophy, I have to be clear in stating the core of my concerns. Philosophy as an institutionalized discipline is not non-existent—universities around the world have been taking existentialists, realists, and other Ists under their wing for centuries—which means that formally, it is recognized. What many communities need, especially here in Indonesia, is not necessarily philosophy with a capital P, but philosophy as a daily habit of careful thinking. If we were to confine philosophy to an environment as isolated as the university, it’s only natural that those who are excluded from the gated community would have suspicions towards it. It is the absence of the connection between philosophy and daily life that creates the sort of mindset that many people, including my own mother, have grown accustomed to over the years.    

Two weeks ago, I had a long chat with an old friend who had just completed her undergraduate degree in Philosophy earlier this year. She joked about how utterly useless philosophy appears to be in the real world, and having majored in Sociology (fashionably termed “Comparative Societies and Cultures” by my alma mater), I could wholeheartedly relate. But then it dawned on me; it’s not only those outside of the Philosophy Holy Zone who fail to see philosophy’s usefulness in everyday life, but also those who are (or were) in it. Though my friend does not regret her choice, since the courses she took had fulfilled her inherent sense of curiosity, she still hasn’t figured what she should do with the bulk of knowledge in her possession. This further justifies the need for philosophy to be in sync with daily life.

But how can this be done? Should professional philosophers be rewarded in order for them to make a living out of their passion? Or should the philosophical aspect of every branch of knowledge and every profession that is based on that knowledge be more emphasized? This all depends on how one wants philosophy to function—as an end or as means to an end. The first option could go terribly wrong if philosophers were to be treated like celebrities by an audience that is unable scrutinize the presented arguments, but merely admires and nods in unison (automatic consumption!). The danger of mainstream thinking/A.C., after all, lies not in the content of an idea, but in the assumption that the content is absolute. This makes the second option more favourable, but it would be difficult to determine which aspects of a particular discipline or occupation are in fact “philosophical.” The problems here are those of categorization and standardization. On the bright side, however, the skills (not the textual content) that students of Philosophy are expected to learn in university have proven to be “useful” in a variety of professions. This article published by The Atlantic suggests that critical thinking skills, among a set of other convenient tools that can be used to tackle real-life problems, are the indispensable assets of Philosophy graduates.

Universities, however, are not the only source where one can acquire critical thinking skills. A sense of curiosity to understand—not solely to know—is something that just about any of us are capable of developing for ourselves, and for those around us.