Why Philosophize?

05 March 2015

Recently, at a conference in Las Vegas, I was looking out my 29th floor window at the desert and some mountains.  A storm was moving slowly toward the North.  There was a clear patch over a large park, but the storm would soon be there and the impending deluge was quite apparent.  I thought about how different this was from our usual experience of weather, on the ground.

If we see a sunny sky, we might pack up some food and take the family for a picnic.  When dark clouds "suddenly" appear out of nowhere and pelt us with heavy rain, we might be upset.  Weather might seem cruel and capricious, and we might start to feel that the universe "has it in for us."  Normally, I am "on the ground," concerned with my own interests and goals and problems.  Things sometimes happen to me, and I don't know where they came from or why they happened.  For example, I might hear a TED talk on a new idea.  If the presenter's argument seems coherent, and the presenter seems authoritative, I might buy into whatever that talk espouses.  I have no other perspective on the issue than the one presented to me in the TED talk.

But, as a philosopher (looking at things from the 29th floor), I might see the new idea in a very different light.  It might be obvious why this TED talk was presented at the time it was presented, and what sort of person the presenter was.  I might be able to place the idea in the context of similar and/or competing ideas on the same topic in the same time and space.  From this perspective, it would be easier to maintain objectivity (the weather is not cruel) and wisdom (the weather is not capricious).

Philosophers see things coming a mile away.  From the 29th floor, we see that our varying metaphors for reality over time all refer to the same "stuff:" stuff that has not changed in the face of our shifting descriptions of it.  Several clichés apply here: Korzybski's "The map is not the territory," Magritte's "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," and the classic "Don't eat the menu."  I want to stay on that metaphorical 29th floor as much as possible.  Sometimes I will miss the passion and excitement of being on the ground, committed to some group advocating this or that cause as if it was the only thing that mattered.  But this seems like a small sacrifice for the gift of perspective.

Comments (2)

Earnest Irony's picture

Earnest Irony

Sunday, March 8, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I like this a lot, Jim. "The

I like this a lot, Jim. "The 29th Floor" would be a great name for a blog, actually.
From my own 29th floor, I don't doubt that the map is not the territory. But do you think that there is a strong metaphysical distinction to be made? Do you think that the "stuff" you mention has an existence beyond our various mappings of it?

Jim Lyttle's picture

Jim Lyttle

Monday, March 16, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Thank you for this Reply.  I

Thank you for this Reply.  I do think stuff exists outside of us, however inaccurately we may perceive it.  I think we saw a furry animal and decided to call it a cat; I do not think the furry animal appeared because we said "cat."