Who Needs Philosophy?

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Back when I was a little boy, living in a yellow stucco house in San Diego, I would sit in the hot tub at night, under desert-clear stars, listen to the coyotes howl and ask my Dad about those dead ancient Greek guys who only had first names: Aristotle, Socrates, Plato. He didn’t know why they didn’t have last names, but he did tell me that they dedicated their entire lives to contemplation and navel-gazing in the service of the good life.

That’s what I want to do, I thought.

(Unfortunately, we had to rip out that hot tub not soon after because a family of rattlesnakes was nesting under it.)

So I didn’t exactly become a philosopher, although I enjoy reading it, now and again. In fact, I haven’t exactly become anything official, except a guy who loves to read and write and who works in a bookstore. I’ve always thought, though, that philosophy is better at helping people with their problems than psychology. And that novels are even better at doing that than either.

I do think that most people who aren’t college students, academics, or scholars don’t care much about philosophy, at least from my limited point of view behind the counter at a used bookstore in San Francisco. And really why should they?  I was amazed recently when an older Bernal Heights resident was asking about a specific Kierkegaard book and whether we had it or not. (We didn’t.) Who reads Kierkegaard anymore? I never did, but I do remember he coined the phrase, “Truth is subjectivity,” which I believe I learned from the Internet instead of from the famous man himself.

Part of the problem of readership, I think, is that since the late 60′s philosophy has become an amalgam of cultural studies, sociology, political cant and psychoanalytic abstractions that all fall under the rubric of “Theory,” a shadowy discipline full of made-up words and famously unfathomable sentences that are prey to infamous mockeries. Not that “Theory” is bad — I spent a lot of my college years studying it –  but it doesn’t necessarily help people lead a good life or find happiness of do all the things that philosophy is supposed to do.

I do have a suspicion though that these “New Hard Times” will be a catalyst for renewed interest in philosophical consolation. In a time when all institutions are in question, but especially our financial ones, it seems natural that we’d start questioning our values and especially how we define happiness, now that money certainly is no measure of it.

It’s a good sign when a real philosopher, Simon Critchley, has an occasional column in the New York Times about finding happiness in troubled times. An English philosopher in the Continental tradition, he believes that disappointment, both religious and political is at the root of all philosophy. He writes in a lucid, plain-spoken way that compels rereading other great thinkers like the Greek Stoics, the Enlightenment genius Rousseau and even Oscar Wilde.

From Critchley’s May 25th blog, “Happy Like God”: “Happiness is not quantitative or measurable and it is not the object of any science, old or new. . .If it consists in anything, then I think that happiness is this feeling of existence, this sentiment of momentary self-sufficiency that is bound up with the experience of time.”

His most recent book, The Book Of Dead Philosophers is a round-up of famous philosopher’s deaths, based on the theory that  sometimes how you die is the most important thing you’ll ever do.  Critchley almost believes that it is what happens after we die — not to us, but to others– that invest our lives with purpose. In “How To Make It In The Afterlife,” he asks, “Why doesn’t it make much better sense to live in such a way — to act kindly, fairly, courageously, decently — in such a way that happiness is something that others might ascribe to you after you are gone?”

More Critchley: video of his inaugral lecture at the New School, Branding Democray: Barack Obama And The American Void.

And finally: a strange organization he is affiliated with, International Necronautical Society which, believe it or not, is loosely affiliated with the A.A.A., better known as the Association Of Autonomous Astronauts. Those are the people who want to build their own spaceships. . .which brings me back to my original point: who doesn’t love philosophy?


Michael Berger is a barely-published writer and book-seller living in San Francisco. He is one of the founding Corsairs of the Iron Garters Bike Club and is currently pursuing a degree in applied pataphysics. He sometimes eats oatmeal for dinner. More from this author →