Ask A Philosopher Online
Live, Facebook, 4/11/20, noon
The Brooklyn Public Philosophers hosted this, the third episode in their cyber version of the previously offline Ask A Philosopher series, with organizer/moderator Ian Olasev (upper right), guest philosophers Kimberly Engels, a bioethicist and existentialist (upper left), and me (bottom center).
To view the video, click on this link: https://www.facebook.com/brooklynpublicphilosophers/videos/536086063971169/
We began by addressing one of the unanswered leftover questions from episode 2, and partly touched on others of the same kind, as well as new questions submitted from viewers during the podcast. I had written up some thoughts about the leftover questions, just so I would have thought about them at least once before the podcast, and in rereading them after the show, I realized they contained some more content than what I managed to express during the podcast, and thus that they were worth publishing here.
Question 1: Regarding happiness and the possibility of liberation through solitude...I’ve been thinking a lot about educating the “child within” - the idea that as we experience this extended state of solitude, we find ourselves in states much like the ones experienced when we were children ourselves. This seems like a rare opportunity to “home school” the child within, in important existential ways. The idea of reframing one’s life; an “adulthood-as-childhood” as we engage in pedagogical practices with our own children and bear witness to the phenomenon of theirs and our own solitary awareness.
Answer 1: I have been consciously experiencing much of this time as a retreat, despite much more frequent bouts of online engagement with my students, colleagues, and everyone else. One of my favorite meditation teachers, Ram Dass, who just died in December, author of Be Here Now, once was asked what he thought was the value of meditation after decades of teaching it. He said he sensed its value most during periods in which he lost his practice, at which times he said he found himself "walking around with a lot of undigested experiences".
Meditative time—not just during formal meditation, but in solitude, quiet, simplicity—offers a spontaneous opportunity to digest experience. In Buddhism, many yogis—that is, serious meditators—practice death-related meditations, contemplating the post-mortem decay of the body and the like, to put things in perspective. With all the COVID-19 deaths we are all aware of, some close to home, we are experiencing both meditative time and heightened death awareness—an awareness of our own mortality, of the contingency, fragility, and thus the preciousness of life, and of where we are as individuals relative to our life plans, relationships, and even just in our embodied daily routines.
The care we now must take, just to engage in simple activities such as grocery shopping, picking up our mail, or bringing in a delivered package also has raised our awareness in the same ways, all of which has managed to get us to have to slow down. To safely handle a delivered package or food is to handle it with care, and that requires attention, time, patience, awareness of what one is doing, attentional focus—all elements of mindfulness. When we are careful, full of care, we are mindful, full of conscious attentional focus on what we are doing. We are now becoming increasingly conscious of so many things that are normally on auto-pilot and thus frequently multi-tasked. We are learning how and when not to multi-task.
The simplicity of our new modes of being and acting is reminiscent of some elements of the child's mindset, the ability to enjoy simple sensations, sounds, sights, smells, and simple activities, like walking, eating, chatting, daydreaming, reflecting—all of these are natural ways of simply being present with whatever life delivers in each moment. We are thereby becoming less dualistically detached from our bodies as we were when we were more entirely focused on thought-directed controlling, planning, orchestrating, and doing of all our efficient activities. It is a kind of rebirth in the flesh, in that regard, simply being more conscious of our bodies as we use them and embody them, and hopefully also a rebirth in the spirit, if we are fortunate enough to be able to recognize and utilize these opportunities as spiritual experiences.
For all these and many related reasons, I consider this aspect of our collective experience a blessing, a much-needed and highly-welcome spiritual reboot. Hopefully, with the intention to maintain this more grounded way of being, when this passes more of us will maintain this more wholesome pace. For me, even just seeing everyone going about with masks and gloves is a powerful visual reminder to walk through open spaces mindfully. Of course, wearing them myself is an even more powerful reminder. In a way, because so many—if not most—of the accidents, injuries, and errors we commit are a direct function of inattention, rushing, multi-tasking, functioning on auto-pilot, or otherwise being insufficiently mindful of what we are doing, basically, being somewhat mindless of our own actions, the present crisis has wakened us all from our otherwise mindless slumbers and inattentive busyness. That is one of the silver linings in this crisis.
Question 2: I tend to think the question “how does this discipline go about acquiring knowledge?” is an ok place to start. Is that fair to ask? Would it be practical or fair to make sure as many as possible are able to ask this question? Well equipped to approach an answer to it? I keep coming back to the importance of early philosophical instruction.
Answer 2: This is actually a few questions.
Answer 2a: First, any answer to these questions will be simplifications. Second, this is not one discipline, but many, given that the many different types of philosophy diverge over the issue of what constitutes philosophy, just as there are many different types of Buddhism.
Western analytic philosophy goes about acquiring knowledge by inquiring into the nature of knowledge itself, the nature of reality, the nature of values, the nature of language and meaning, the nature of logical inference, and the like. It basically goes meta on all other forms of knowledge, it assumes as a starting point certain axiomatic principles, such as the law of identity or non-contradiction, and it relies heavily on logical and linguistic analysis while also using whatever knowledge it arrives at as a basis to re-examine everything, even its own foundations. Recent forms of this philosophy are heavily informed by the empirical sciences.
Forms of Asian philosophy, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, engage similar inquiries, for example, and use similar tools, but they emphasize what may be understood as phenomenological methods, such as meditation, to turn the cognitive apparatus in on itself, so to speak. It is difficult to define philosophy in a way that includes even these few different forms of philosophy, much less all forms, such as the multiply various indigenous ways of knowing, exploring, experimenting, many of which use entheogens and other consciousness-altering substances and practices.
One Buddhist meditation teacher of mine, Dhamma Dena, defined mindfulness meditation as extraordinary awareness of ordinary experience. I think that might apply to all forms of philosophy, in some sense, though it could conceivably admit of exceptions, described a certain way, such as forms of meditation that seek to transcend consciousness, if that makes any sense. Some sort of heightened consciousness or meta-mind seems to be involved in every form of philosophy.
Answer 2b: As for whether everyone should engage on this level, which I take it is a summary of the other questions here, I'm not sure, as some people with certain cognitive disabilities might be unable to benefit from philosophy. But I teach at an urban community college in Brooklyn, and many if not most of my students are not college ready, and from a certain vantage they are not philosophy ready, in terms of being able to write decent philosophy essays, follow a complex debate, or grasp certain abstract ideas and theories and the like, but as human beings and not college students, they are thirsty for meaning, understanding, perspective, and direction, and they soak up all the less intimidating materials I frontload into my courses, about the nature of belief, reality, knowledge, values, the meaning of life, and so on. They have not been educated to engage the sorts of skills needed to figure out who they are, what they should believe, and what they should do with their lives. So, yes, I do think early education in the basic philosophical questions and methods would a great thing for most students.
Question 3: Does psychoanalysis count as philosophy? Psychoanalysis meaning the discipline, although the practice of psychoanalysis is another interesting question that I won’t stop you from answering! Thanks! And thanks for running this!
Answer 3: I'm not sure what the difference is between the discipline and the practice here, although if by the discipline it is implicitly contrasted with the practice, I'd surmise you mean the theoretical knowledge or theory of psychoanalysis. If that's what you mean, then I would say it may or may not count as "a" philosophy, rather than as "philosophy", insofar as almost any theory that purports to explain the phenomena it ranges over may be loosely defined as a philosophy about that domain—an integrated set of hypotheses and explanations that may or may not be supported by empirical evidence.
But psychoanalysis began more as a speculative hypothesis than an evidence based theory, and most of the so-called evidence for it initially was arguably anecdotal and overly theory-driven, and may still be. But whereas other theories, say, about how COVID-19 spreads or about how low carb diets work, also attempt to describe aspects of reality, psychological theories attempt to describe how the mind works and to explain behavior accordingly, and since any meta-mental investigations seem to fall under the rubric of heightened attempts to understand ordinary experience, arguably psychological theories are philosophical.
But then so are theories of prayer, of the power of positive thinking, or of the so-called spiritual law of attraction or the law of karma. Almost any theory can count as philosophical in some sense, described appropriately. But adhering to or accepting any such theory, even if the theory is clearly philosophical in some such sense, is what we call having a philosophy, which is not the same thing as doing philosophy. Anyone with any beliefs about what is real or with any preferences arguably has an implicit philosophy, regardless of how randomly acquired or unconscious it may be. But what we are doing right now is engaging in philosophical inquiry. That is doing philosophy.
So, ultimately, whether a particular psychoanalyst or other psychologist, speaking of the practice part of the question, is a philosopher engaged in doing philosophy depends on whether or not that individual is simply manipulating the methods sanctioned by the theory in their clinical practice with clients or engaging in philosophical inquiry with them. Philosophical counselors, on the other hand, are philosophy practitioners who specifically engage in philosophical inquiry with their clients, often addressing the same issues those clients might otherwise bring to a psychologist: How to think about their relationships, what they want to accomplish in their life plans, how to understand their divorce, their careers, their mid-life crises, the loss of a loved one, their impending death, the meaning of life, whether faith is rational, etc.
But whereas, say, psychoanalysts tend to comb through a client's history, their body language, their free-associations, verbal slips, memories, feelings, etc., to find answers to those same sorts of concerns that brought the client in for counseling, the philosophical counselor will engage the client in Socratic dialogue, interrogating the client's assumptions and reasoning, helping the client figure out what their basic beliefs and values are. This is often achieved through suggested readings from the great conversation that constitutes philosophy, bringing the client into that discussion, directing the client to vast philosophical networks of understanding that might be useful, and, ultimately, ideally, awakening the client's inner philosopher.
Ask A Philosopher—or—Ask A Philosophical Counselor. If you would like to ask me a philosophical question of your own, or a philosophical counseling question of your own, simply email me at email@example.com, and I will likely get back to you within a day or two. That could also serve as a good way to see if you think we can do philosophical counseling work together. If you are ok with it, I'll publish your question and my answer here, and, if you prefer, anonymously.