Philosophy and self-effacement

I often get the question “what is philosophy good for?” and I often don’t have a good answer, but more and more I’m settling on answer that involves, surprisingly, a comparison between philosophy and art.

You see, I thought philosophy’s purpose was to figure stuff out, but I know that can’t be right, because nothing ever gets figured out. Hasn’t happened in the first 2000 years of philosophy and it won’t happen in the second 2000 years.

Rather, philosophy is an exercise or a game, but that doesn’t make it worthless by a long shot. Philosophers come and go just like teams in sports come and go. One day Kant is on top but the next century replaces him with Nietzsche. Rawls builds something and the next person will tear it all down. The same is true in art. Someone makes something beautiful or starts an artistic movement, but the next movement reveals its flaws and begins a new genre. Nothing true is discovered by art, rather new modes of beauty are experimented with. Philosophy is experimentation in thinking and it showcases the freedom of the mind just as sports showcases the power of the human form.

Still, philosophy is unique in one sense. It TAKES itself to be about the discovery of truth, but as it pursues that goal, it inevitably unmasks itself. A true philosopher I think always realizes that it’s just a game, because the true philosopher is practiced in the art of unmasking (think Nietzsche here). And so, philosophy is always in a battle to forget itself; to forget the skepticism it, itself engenders.

But this shouldn’t be strange. All sorts of activities must proceed under the aspect of deception. For example, athletes must believe that what they do matters. Otherwise, sports wouldn’t be any fun to watch or play. When you meet someone on the athletic field, you believe that they are your opponent and that there is something to be gained in defeating them. If we followed 4th grade soccer sentiment and believed it was “all about having fun” then we wouldn’t actually have any fun and in fact we would destroy the value of sport. But see how this is self-fulfilling, when we pretend that something has value, then it GAINS value, it acquires value.

The same is true of philosophy. We take it to be about the search for truth, and this is what makes it real and live. If it was just a game, we wouldn’t engage with it in the same way; the passion would be gone. Instead, we think that there are real questions out there to be answered, and this is what gives the game it’s majesty. This is also Nietzsche’s great insight, which is that lies are just as good as the truth. He wasn’t making a point about honesty or the morality of lying, but rather the importance of deception in creating value.

(I can’t believe I don’t have a category called just “philosophy”)


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