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Doing Philosophy In America

Martin LeFevre:  Words that were the currency of philosophy when I attended grad school a few decades ago are now in everyday use. Words like ‘problematic,’ ‘unpack,’ and ‘deconstruct.’ Does that mean philosophy has become respected in America?

Hardly. The parlous condition of American culture is such that even as its terms are appropriated, philosophy is still held in contempt, though many people, especially pundits, now seem to think of themselves as philosophers. After all, that which is of little value anyone can do.  

In truth, actually doing philosophy (as contrasted with academic philosophy) is rare and arduous, requiring  ‘reinventing the wheel.’ Which is to say, asking anew some of the same questions that ancient Greek or Indian philosophers asked, without looking to them for answers.  

Without getting into epistemology, philosophy is not about accumulating knowledge but growing in wisdom. And wisdom is not accumulative. That’s why no philosopher worthy of the name builds on the ideas and philosophical systems of previous philosophers. A true philosopher starts from scratch, and stands alone, even when he or she inquires with others.

It follows that once you enter into a discussion of a philosopher’s ideas, and remain within the context of a philosophical system, you are lost. The true philosopher asks you not to accept or even consider his or her ideas, but to question and discover for yourself the trueness or falseness of his or her insights.

That being said, I spent some time in the last few days giving what philosophers call “a fair and sympathetic hearing” to two of my least favorite philosophers, Nietzsche and Daniel Dennett.

Nietzsche is the “God is dead” guy who suffered from dementia (a nice word for madness in his case) the last ten years of his life, and Dennett is the “I don’t need mystery” fellow who “wants people to see what a meaningful, happy life I’ve had with these [atheistic] beliefs” before he kicks off.

After being caught up in an incident of extreme violence by a nun in the 8th grade, I began privately questioning and studying the Catholic faith in which I was inculcated. Then one Sunday as a senior in high school, I announced to my stunned parents that I wasn’t going to church that day or ever again.

Some months later I had a deeply transformative ‘mystical experience’ while observing nature and myself in the family backyard. In short, I didn’t become religious until I left organized religion behind.

Meditation and philosophy are very different things. Meditating is about attending to the movement of thought/emotion until the mind falls silent and the heart fully opens. Conversely, philosophy is about thinking and logically following the thread of a question.

The budding philosopher in me had a passionate urge to understand, in rational and testable terms, the phenomenon of the transcendent states I was experiencing, without the intellect destroying them, indeed, while growing in my capacity for them.  

Also, after directly experiencing the unitary and immeasurably wondrous mystery of life, a philosophical question emerged and gripped the mind: Given that nature unfolds in seamless wholeness, and there is no actual separation between anything, how did nature evolve a creature that cannot stop separating, and so is fragmenting the earth all to hell?

At 18 years old, I assumed that philosophers had asked and gained insight into this question. So I wrote and spoke with every philosopher I could. I talked with a lot of men (there were very few female philosophers at that time, and still aren’t enough), culminating in a wonderful talk in San Francisco with Gandhi’s grandson, who was a well-known philosopher in both India and America.

Finally, the chair of the philosophy department at Stanford said, dismissively if not derisively, “No philosopher in the world is asking that question.” 

So I set out to find out for myself. And nearly 15 years after the question emerged and began to philosophically obsess my mind, there were what I felt then, and still feel today over 30 years later, a few original insights.

I then attended graduate school in philosophy, with the goal of obtaining a PhD in the area of my question, which is called “theories of human nature.” I did very well in grad school, but after a year something was nagging at me.

So I wrote to David Bohm, who Einstein had called his “spiritual son,” with a 12-page outline of my investigation and insights before a weekend of publicly scheduled dialogues. After two days of mostly one-on-one dialogue, I didn’t have the chutzpah to approach him and ask if he had read the summary of my investigations.

To my surprise he walked up and simply said, “I read your letter.” Given the alignment of our inquiry (albeit mostly resulting from my picking his prodigious mind), and realizing one doesn’t get many chances in life like this, I looked him in the eye and asked, “Do think I’ve done it, resolved the riddle of man?

“Yes,” he said. Immediately I asked, what do I do with it? “Just don’t make another philosophical system out of it,” he firmly replied.

I saw the truth behind Bohm’s advice and realized that it was what was nagging me in grad school. Philosophical systems have not advanced human understanding and harmony, but contributed to human division and chaos.

Twenty-five years ago, when someone asked what I did and I said, ‘I do philosophy,’ I received blank or incredulous stares. Now people don’t blink an eye, even if they give the standard, state-sanctioned excuse in America and the West for not examining their life, society and the world: “I’m really busy.”

I’m content with the philosophical obsession of my youth, and the insights that have stood the test of time (even if they haven’t received a fair and sympathetic hearing). But I’m not as sure about the much more difficult question that has preoccupied my mind in recent years.

So what about Nietzsche and Dennett? Despite what latter-day followers say, Nietzsche is correctly associated with nihilism. After all, his lifeless prescription for right living is this: “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati – that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.” That’s a grim philosophy indeed, given man’s intensifying ecological and psychological crisis.

With respect to Dennett, who looks like an aged, bearded David Letterman on a bad day, the cornerstone of his worldview is contained in this quote: “Each cell is a living agent of its own. It has a sort of agenda: It’s trying to stay alive…human life and human consciousness are made possible by these incredibly brilliant consortia of little robots.”

That is a philosophy of atomism, of particularity over wholeness, and of hard-core atheism carried to its logical, absurd end.

The question that has gripped my mind the last three decades is this: Can a creative explosion of insight ignite in my lifetime that changes the disastrous course of man?

No ‘happy’ person pursues such a question, but any serious person responds to it now, given how dire the human prospect has become.

Answering ‘no’ is self-fulfilling; answering ‘yes’ is wishful thinking. Some questions, it appears, have to be held longer than a lifetime.



Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.