Philosophers since time immemorial have had to bring their discourse into the public space. To disinfect thought from the lofty conceptual stratosphere is an art form that is cathartic. At some moments in western life, it has been seen as a requirement. Education in the humanities implied that you owed the public a debt to educate and teach. Those days are over. But suffice it to say that the means to making philosophy accessible and to giving it legs lies in our ability as thinkers to bring philosophy out into the open.
In our specialized intellectual lives, where the philosophy professor approaches his or her role in society as a private occupation, we seldom have a desire to bring philosophy to the masses, let alone to our own friends and family.
Most often when we do, it happens accidently. Usually with a question: “so what do you do?” “Oh, well I’m writing my dissertation on…” and suddenly you have to distill it all down into a coherent bit of information.
Very few of us can easily spit out a clean and digestible response. Some philosophers are snooty and stay stand-offish, giving the impression that philosophy is like mathematics, or astro-physics: you wouldn’t be interested!
Some of us, myself included, get excited at the possibility of being able to clearly bring that person or group into the space of fascination and awe that you have over the topic or thinker at hand, and we jump into a lion’s den of complex neologism’s. We drop a slew of concepts all the while assuming that the other knows about what we are saying (at best) or more often, masking our own less sure understanding of the topic by falling back on name dropping.
In the spirit of what philosophy is all about, (a love of wisdom and pervasive questioning into our existence) we should learn to practice some good self restraint, slow down, and not seek to answer, or fall into a deterministic position, providing answers. We ought to let the love of wisdom work on its own without our interference. To do this, we need to make philosophy cool. To do that, we are best when we tactically detach ourselves from the whole thing and just operate on the level of analogy and examples, and refuse to jump into name dropping and term/concept dropping.
In this post, I’d like to generate some ground rules for myself so that in so doing they become etched into my mind, and slowly become my default. But it’s tricky, because usually, I love it when people ask me what I study and what I am writing my dissertation on. I find it to be like practice, or rehearsing for my dream of one day becoming a public intellectual a knot lodged in a healthy fantasy that colors my overall view of others around me. This leads me to assume that my exuberance for critically analyzing things is somehow shared by others in as neurotic a way as my own. For the record, I think people are all philosophers, in this sense I am a big tent philosopher, come one come all! But let’s face it, philosophy just isn’t that cool. The field is dominated in America by analytic thinkers and convoluted overly specialized academics that are so esoteric that they really would prefer to stay separate and misunderstood.
All of this causes me to sometimes tighten up when something theoretical comes up in a public conversation, faced as I am with this realization and my own giddiness over the possibility of speaking about philosophy. The net result of the environment around philosophy and things intellectual is that people feel like they are being judged, or that they aren’t smart. Let’s see if we can change that.
Knowing your audience is something that I have learned how to do as a public speaker over the last few years, and talking philosophy well is similar. There are clear disjunctions that require a very fine balance: being knowledgeable without being condescending, dumbing things down versus being able to see where people are coming from, and giving the proper and correct types of examples and analogies to illuminate a point.
Being able to speak to someone that doesn’t like intellectual baggage in your language (which is most people) is a difficult feat to manage for a philosopher that lives in language and arguments. I grew up in environments where intellectual talk was highly frowned upon, and I have come to realize that my philosophising is now an art form. Most of the time I really talk about philosophy I am amongst a very few set of people that read the same books as I do, and have dedicated a fair amount of time to similar traditions of thought as I am interested in. But this fact is in and of itself a sort of rewarding aspect to my intellectual life. Being able to study for days and weeks and then run across a moment of heavy exchange with one of my friends or a professor, etc. is cathartic. I’d go so far as to suggest that this reality will always stay with me.
Let’s pretend for a moment that a senior philosopher goes about his day, teaching, conversing, and thinking about philosophy nearly every moment of her waking life. It would not be possible for each of these exchanges to be in a state of mutually cathartic release. In other words, even if I was teaching philosophy daily, I wouldn’t necessarily have access to daily run-in’s of transcendent understanding. The image of the beleaguered Hegel, teaching in a high school gymnasium and working up his philosophical writing in solitary at night.
All of this has led me to suggest a few preliminary ground rules for myself and perhaps for others when facing philosophy in small talk, at parties, or family get-together’s, etc:
1. Being able to communicate philosophy clearly and without loaded jargon is the equivalent to being a good evangelist for the whole of philosophy. It shows others that not only is philosophy cool, but so is thinking abstractly, and critically.
2. To do this well, you should be a bit detached. Don’t get over zealous. Use your surroundings as props. Use your body. Pull examples out of the sky, not out of your ass.
3. Use examples over defining concepts without any context. There is nothing worse that throwing out 3 to 4 ideas without providing some context. Each time you throw out an idea, if the person really cares, they will want that idea defined, which may take 5 minutes unto itself. So its best to not even use the word that defines the idea until you have said it without any reference to it at all.
The best example of this I can think of is a recent conversation I had at a BBQ about Occupy Wall Street. I gave the example of Lacan’s “university discourse”, the role of the hysteric, and a bit of Laclau to describe why there is an inherent value in not defining the movement’s goals and objectives. I did this, somehow, without using the word hysteric or university discourse.
It went something like this:
“Well there is a really famous French thinker who cautioned the youth revolutionaries during the largest protest against capitalism in May of 1968, that they should stay in the space of not defining their demands because upon doing so, they would immediately become determined by the powers that be over them. In other words, he argued that if a movement occupies a space of refusing to be defined for long enough, then a. more people join it and more struggles can be represented. b. the more struggles are represented under the banner of the movement, the less likely any other discourse has the ability to determine the movement and situate it. This is why it is not advised to define your demands, but to occupy the place of dissatisfaction with the state of things. This is the best way to grow a movement, and then demands can be assessed at a later time.”
After this I attributed the concepts and said something briefly about them, but it wasn’t really necessary, and I didn’t need to. I think the person I was talking to actually liked these ideas and he said as he was leaving that they “made sense” and he “could see that”. It could have gone worse.
– Describe negation of negation in two sentences or less.
– Describe the Lacanian real in under one minute.
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