A few weeks ago I heard a scream and turned my head to see Robert stomping his foot. He and Harry, both around four years old, were standing next to each other. Robert was leaning forward, chest out, holding his arms straight down, fists clenched. When I got there, I asked, “What happened?”
“He took my train!” Robert screamed.
I turned to Harry, who was holding a Thomas train in his hand, and asked him, “Was Robert playing with that train?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Did you take it?”
“Yes,” he answered, brow furrowed. “I want it.”
We talked about it and moved on. The whole encounter lasted less than a minute but it stuck with me. Harry didn’t deny taking the train or lie about the circumstances. He didn’t apologize or give an excuse. And yet there wasn’t a hint of meanness about him. He was perfectly serious when he uttered, “I want it,” which to him was sufficient grounds for taking the train. I admire the awesome simplicity of Harry’s behavior.
I also shudder to think about what lies ahead for Harry and the others in my preschool class as they grow up. In infancy, reality and desire lie flush against each other. There is no boundary between them, no fault line. In preschool the first cracks emerge. A child wants a toy, or to have their mother, or simply to say what’s on their mind, but they don’t get to have it. They see the toy but don’t get to play with it. They want their mother, but she is not there. They have an idea but don’t get to make it known.
The gap between desire and reality continues to grow as we age. Eventually, it’s not that we want the train and don’t get it, but that we do and it doesn’t satisfy us. It isn’t what we had hoped for. Not what we had been promised. We hold the actual train in our hands and yet seem to long for something different, something hidden and remote. We enter a school or church or career and are disappointed. We enter society and find it is different than we had imagined. The gap widens into a canyon, and the canyon becomes too wide to see across.
I think it is impossible to avoid encountering this canyon between the ideal and real. The more you get to know a thing—its historical and contemporary reality—the more you see a mismatch between the idea in your head and what it actually is. The hopeful intuitions that lead you down a path turn out, inevitably, to be inconsistent with reality.
I spent ten years of my life formally studying philosophy. I was initially attracted to the discipline because I wanted to understand my place in the universe and my path through it, in the largest and most comprehensive sense of the terms. But as I began to move through the field it became clear to me that professional philosophy is more about universities, papers, and CVs than what I had hoped for. It is formal, conventional, and professional. Its nature is dictated by the institutions that support it. Faced with this inconsistency, I eventually concluded that what goes by the name “philosophy” in the contemporary university is a corrupted and distorted image of philosophy rather than philosophy itself.
But what is this “philosophy itself”? When I say this, the image of Harry comes to my mind again. Harry explained his taking the toy, grabbing it out of Robert’s hands, by saying he wanted it. The logic behind his action, which he articulated so beautifully and shamelessly, was simple: “I want it, therefore I take it.” And I would guess it’s even better to get rid of the “I,” since at Harry’s age the ego, the sense of self, is between nonexistent and inchoate. There is no distinction between self and world, and no space for others. Reality answers immediately to desire, individual desire.
When I say that what we call “philosophy” is not philosophy, how am I different from Harry, innocently but ignorantly imposing my desire on things? Granting that it is not what I desire it to be—the organic attempt to know yourself, the universe and your place in it—how am I not naively confusing myself, my own needs, with the world?
I can relate to the mixture of confusion and outrage Harry felt when I implied that he might well want the train but still can’t grab it out of Robert’s hands, which suggests to me that I might be in an analogous situation, and have an analogous lesson to learn. But the source of our confusion is different. Harry is confused because he is used to what he wants being his, and now he wants something and is being told it is not his. Desire is decoupling from reality for him. But I am confused because I am used to one thing being called “philosophy,” and now we are calling something really different “philosophy.”
Traditionally, philosophy was understood to be a way of living that involves regular attempts to know oneself and the world through examination of received norms, habits and conventions. By making these unconscious norms explicit, we come into a position to evaluate them and their alternatives, to select and reject. By giving an account of ourselves and holding ourselves to account, we put ourselves in a position to pursue the good life, to live wisely.
Accordingly, philosophy has traditionally been considered to be both comprehensive and transformative. It reorders everything a person knows and does, and thereafter sits at the top of their priorities. This love of wisdom includes theory and practice, words and action, and is pursued with a solemn, religious, joyful devotion that makes the practitioner idiosyncratic, unconventional, fanatical.
This conception of philosophy is held in common by my philosophical heroes, who railed against the professionalization of intellectual life. In his dialogue Gorgias, Plato criticizes teachers who teach their students skill in argumentation without concern for the truth of the argument being made. According to Plato, absent a concern for the truth, what they teach is just verbal acrobatics and fancy argumentation, a parody of true intellectual life. Similarly, in his essay “The American Scholar,” Ralph Waldo Emerson argues that “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it he is not yet a [human being].” Professionalization, he says, is dangerous when it leads to specialization and abstraction. When thinking is not part of an integrated whole, it becomes distorted.
Yet philosophy today is professional, in that the object of reflection is circumscribed. What a professional philosopher thinks about is limited and the limit is given by the profession. Because you need to publish papers in established journals to become established in the field, you have to write about what the established journals are interested in. From the inside, that is a big umbrella, but from the outside it is an extreme limitation.
One result of this attitude is that PhD students and early career academics concentrate on what is hot in the field at the expense of their own interests. As a graduate student I often met even mid-career professors who wistfully lamented the ongoing neglect of their deeper philosophical interests due to career pressures, the necessity of establishing themselves in the field as it exists. They look forward to tenure, when they imagine they will have the time to explore their own questions, the writers and issues that originally drew them to the subject.
I saw this in my own experience as a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are two of the writers whose work I find the most interesting, culturally relevant, and philosophically rich, yet I was told I could not write a dissertation because the few senior faculty who might have advised me thought that such a dissertation would not help me secure a job at a university as a professional philosopher. Not one of them took issue with the worthiness of the topic. They just didn’t think it would be a passport to the profession.
Across the board, members of the discipline focus their energy on what is being talked about in the field more than the practical interests which surround them on the professional track. Why are some writers excluded from the mainstream of professional philosophy? Why do people in the field use the phrase “adding a line to your CVs” as if it were an end in and of itself? What does this mean about the profession I am entering? Along with many others, these questions are excluded from professional reflection, but that alone makes such reflection unphilosophical. No question which arises out of genuine interest can be excluded from our inquiry when we inquire with a philosophical spirit. Philosophy is the discovery and pursuit of our interests. Not an ancestor’s, or corporation’s, or institution’s, but our own.
But professional reflection is limited in a second way in that it is detached from action, except a few actions of a professional sort. Healthy reflection is part of a cycle that runs from experience to reflection to judgment and back into experience. In the healthy cycle, knowing leads into doing. Making arguments with where you put your muscles and bones. Professional reflection, on the other hand, exists in isolation. It has no urgency, no outcome, and no end point, other than giving a talk at a conference or publishing a paper or book. It prizes only the articulation of ideas, not the employment or embodiment of them. The whole sphere of action, the use or neglect of ideas, lived and embodied reality, is invisible to it.
Once, at a philosophy conference in Germany, I heard a young academic give a talk about the idea of art in the tradition of German idealism, an important philosophical movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He argued compellingly for the idea that life is essentially an artistic process. As he spoke I thought about how this line of thinking must have consequences, for instance, for how we write philosophy. Afterwards, I approached him, excited to ask him about the next steps, the practical implications of his thesis. But he merely answered by connecting new ideas to those he had talked about and adding what another philosopher had said about them. Ideas, but no actions. For him it was enough to talk about the thesis, to spell the ideas out theoretically. My questions, which grew out of my interest in enacting them, were foreign to him.
Nowadays philosophy is thought of as a department at a university, but historically it was much more than that. When I was a professional philosopher, I was shocked other philosophers didn’t reflect on these issues more. Philosophy, as I understand it, inherently involves questioning. It involves submitting received norms and practices to examination in the here and now, by you and me, by our own lights. It makes titles alleged, and it turns credentials into “credentials.” And yet most graduate students take it on authority that they are entering the profession of philosophy.
Graduate students must simply adopt, for instance, the writing norms of the contemporary academic world. In the history of philosophy, it is easy to see that Plato, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein all write in very different ways: plays, essays, aphorisms, myths, etc. Graduate students, however, simply adopt the norms of the contemporary academic world. To mention just two things, this means writing impersonally, so that the author as a subject disappears from the text, and it also means a lot of what is called “sign-posting”: “My argument in this section will proceed in three steps. First I will…” Graduate students take it on faith that these norms are conducive to their ends—but philosophy involves questioning precisely that.
In the end, you get a situation where academic philosophers can lecture at length and with nuance about the special abstract topic of their professional attention, but their reflection on the innumerable practical issues surrounding them is stuck at an elementary level. They seem to have had no thought to spare for the practical questions that must assail them left and right as they move through the discipline, let alone the world. Their reflection is not like the radiating curiosity of a child. It goes only in a particular direction. As Emerson says of the “multitude of scholars,” “their talent is some exaggerated faculty, some overgrown member, so that their strength is a disease.” Why do we call what they do “philosophy”?
Here I am back with Harry again. He was confused by the gap between desire and reality, and I am confused by the gap between language and reality, and also desire and reality, the gap between the idea and tradition and promise of philosophy and the way it actually exists in the modern university. Why aren't graduate students and professors, many of whom desire to do philosophy for the same reasons you do, able to achieve their desire in the one context that would seem to be most conducive to it? I was as stunned by that context, and the gap I had found between expectation and reality, as Harry was by the gap that suddenly emerged between his desire and reality. Unlike Harry, however, I can struggle to understand the gap, to articulate it in language and to live in the space opened up by that understanding.
One thing living with the gap means is embracing the role of action in philosophy, thereby distinguishing it from the academic discipline called by the same name. As it is understood in the professional world, philosophy doesn’t require any action, but that understanding appears to me as a fruit grown from rotten and corrupted institutional soil. Philosophy is a way of life.
After I left my graduate program at the University of Chicago, I got a job teaching second grade at a German-speaking elementary school in Ravenswood, a neighborhood on the north side of the city. Teaching second grade, while thinking and writing about it, is a key part of the expression of my philosophy. It is to me what journal papers are to a professional philosopher. They are publications of my thinking. It appears in my CV, my life course.
And yet I wonder who, if anyone, reads these publications. Because, of course, teaching second grade and preschool is not commonly read as an expression of philosophical significance. This fact points to a problem of incongruence or lack of recognition between myself and society, a problem that arises necessarily in the attempt to live in the gap between the ideal and the real. People don’t recognize me as a philosopher, though I consider myself one, and people whom I don’t consider to be philosophers are publicly recognized as such. Society does not see in me what I see in myself.
In fact, embracing the role of action in philosophy seems to be intensifying this problem rather than solving it. In essence, I believe that the degrees and titles formally handed out by universities are empty decorations, and that the entire field of professional philosophy is inherently compromised. On the other hand, I imagine that I, a titleless, PhD dropout, working in a preschool, practice genuine philosophy. And from that point of view the world appears turned on its head. The field of people, teaching courses, writing books, working for actually-existing, multibillion-dollar institutions? A distortion. A corruption. They are philosophers by letter, but I embody the spirit of the tradition. I am the true philosopher.
Of course, my own thinking reminds me again of Harry. He thought the reality of his playing with the train followed simply from his desire to play with it. He was struggling to separate desire from things, to see the high-resolution complexity of the world, to recognize that other people are as real as he is. Am I, like Harry, selfishly imposing my desire on the world? Am I ignorantly concluding that something is so, because I want it to be that way?
Such a possibility is an inherent danger in the path I have chosen. Arguments to the effect that philosophy is a way of life and cannot be institutionalized and professionalized are sound, I believe. Moreover, I fancy the idea of a philosopher living simply, humbly, anonymously. Anonymity combined with a great desire for recognition can easily produce delusion, but I am honored to face this danger, because philosophy, as I understand it, is essentially dangerous. Philosophy inherently involves questioning everything, and above all questioning yourself. Of course questioning is dangerous. The philosophical wager is that it is worth it.
Suppose I am right that philosophy cannot be professionalized or institutionalized or credentialized, can be practiced as much by a preschool teacher as by anybody else. Suppose you believe this. How do you keep believing it? When all the social and economic and institutional evidence goes in the other direction? When you are alone?
You need spiritual practices. Spiritual practices help you free yourself from the troubles and desires that harass you. They are sequences of thought that help you regulate your mind. Philosophy has traditionally understood these structures of thought, and practices of making them, to be indispensable for wise and contented living. These sequences are not intended merely to be objects of abstract contemplation. They are practices: things you do, and do not once but again and again.
The expert on such practices is Pierre Hadot. A leading scholar of ancient philosophy in the second half of the 20th century, Hadot shows how spiritual practices have been integral to the philosophical tradition throughout history, developed and used by everyone from Plato and Epictitus and Marcus Aurelius to Nietzsche. They can take the form of dialogue, meditation, reminders or story-telling. He emphasizes that spiritual practices are not just theoretical objects but engage the imagination and affectivity. They are to be used in learning to live. That’s what makes them exercises or practices.
One classic variety of spiritual exercise involves achieving what Hadot calls the “view from above.” Everyone is familiar with the effect of looking down on human affairs from the height of a mountain or airplane. The promise of a spiritual exercise is to create a state of mind, an attitude, from a natural experience like this one. To see things “from above” means to see things in perspective, from the largest plain available to you. The spiritual exercise involves deliberately cultivating such an experience, harnessing its power so that it can be returned to at will. Then it is built into a poem, a saying, or a myth, which can be repeated as the situation demands. They are to be ready-to-hand, put to use in daily life.
In my case, I need spiritual practices to tie down for myself what philosophy is and to free myself from the desire for recognition from those I don’t recognize. In one of my favorite practices, I meditate on the opening chapter of Moby-Dick, where Ishmael explains his reasoning for going to sea as a “simple sailor” rather than as a cook or an officer. Although they have more prestige for their office, they are less free, he asserts, and he prizes his freedom to be a revolving eye and to, say, climb the masthead when he pleases. “I abominate all honorable respectable toils,” Ishmael says. “It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself.” I repeat these lines like scripture, holy writing that reaffirms me in my choice to be untitled, a simple sailor on the seas of life.
In a broader sense, I consider the work I do at the preschool a spiritual practice. My power of observation is constantly rewarded, as I learn not only about my utterly individual children but also about myself and universal humanity. It is a constant exercise in patience. Patience in execution and patience in iteration. No one recognizes the pleasure and consolation of repetition better than children! Working daily in a preschool classroom, I deliberately and concretely live out my own conception of philosophy, instead of getting carried along by the implicit disciplinary assumptions of professional philosophy. Every day the environment brings home to me that life is not thought or said but lived.
More basically, however, when the question is how to stay sane in a world that’s gone insane, the answer, making exceptions for abnormal psychology, is that you can’t do it alone. You need understanding, and you need other people. identities are social, and die in isolation. This means that, if there is a sense of philosophy I want to preserve and realize, I need to find other people to do it with. I need to find my way to peers who can speak my language and share my questions and values, help me formulate and progress toward goals, who can recognize me and be recognized by me in turn. Why aren't graduate students and professors, many of whom desire to do philosophy for the same reasons I do, able to achieve their desire in the one context that would seem to be most conducive to it? And if that context—the university—is not, in fact, the most conducive to philosophy, which is?
That’s where I am now. I am searching for friends who I can think with while transforming myself, and my sense of philosophy. For me, that means looking inside and outside the academy, perhaps even preferring the misfits and dropouts. It means finding those who are organically intellectual, asking not only the sanctioned, professional questions but the natural and urgent ones arising from their experience. Those who not only speak but act. Those who are broadening their audience and experimenting with new forms like YouTube and podcasts. It means preferring those who don’t have a title, an official name for themselves, at least not yet. Those who are still searching for one.
In this spirit, I am reaching out to real, living like minds, whether at work, or on Substack, where I write a newsletter and read others, or at home. Since July I have lived in an intentional community in Los Angeles that attempts to weave activism together with prayer. The founder of the house, who was the first person I’ve ever met who described himself, candidly, as a mystic, had spent years participating deeply in radical politics before realizing that the call for political action must be balanced by and combined with contemplative practice. In the last few months he has guided me into the world of monasticism: meditation, fasting and daily mysticism. He has also introduced me to his concepts of organizing for transformational social change. His methodology combines old-school, bottom-up, daily-grind organizing with mass-action, out-in-the-streets, front-page protest. While providing a vocabulary for thinking about the structure of social movements, he has invited me to see the value in, and ingenuity of, well-executed symbolic protest, like Occupy Wall Street or Gandhi's salt march.
Here, again, I find some of myself in Harry. Someday Harry will come to see others not as obstacles to his desire but companions in it. With or without his acknowledgment, they already are. And if Harry comes to recognize Robert’s desire for the train, for example, as like his own, then his own desire for the train is validated as a good thing, as not purely arbitrary but grounded in something real and shared.
LIke the Harry I am imagining, I believe the next step for me is opening up to my need for other people in grounding, solidifying, and ultimately realizing my desires. In order to realize my philosophy, I need to be open to my conception of it changing as it grows more real in conversation with others. I need them in order to live in the gap between philosophy as I experienced it and the philosopher I want to be, the lover of wisdom I want to become.