The Life of the Mind

I wonder sometimes what it means to “live in the present.” This issue came up recently in my epistemology class when we were discussing Robert Audi’s book Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge (Routledge, 2010). Audi mentions briefly the possibility of knowledge of the future. I know for example, he says, “that I am going to continue thinking about knowledge for a long time.” Does he know that though, I asked my students? I could say the same thing about myself, based on my past and what I know of my character and intellectual predilections. But do I know it? I’ve been told that I live too much in my head, too much in the world of ideas, that I deny too much of my humanity, that I have developed a lopsided life by placing too much emphasis on thought. I’m not sure whether the people who make such charges are correct, I continued, because I enjoy living, so to speak, in my thoughts. I do not see it as a problem in the way some people do. But perhaps, I continued, perhaps one day I’ll change my mind and chuck my life as a professional philosopher, my life of thought, and go off and do art or something and live completely in the present.

But then one of my students asked whether I wasn’t already living in the present, meaning, I take it, to suggest that intellectual pleasures were as much a part of the present as sensual or emotional ones. That question stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never considered that perspective, steeped as I was in the philosophical tradition going back to Plato that sees thought as a kind of flight from concrete reality.

Socrates famously describes philosophy in The Phaedo as preparation for death. The body, he points out, and its needs are a constant distraction, an irritation to the philosopher who would prefer to be rid of them. The senses deceive, and attending to physical needs takes time away from contemplation of the eternal, unchanging truth. Kierkegaard talks about thought as a kind of withdrawal from concrete reality into the realm of abstraction. Concrete reality, after all, is a plethora of particulars, whereas thought, he asserts, deals always with universals.

There is undoubtedly some truth to this perspective. Yet there is also a sense in which reflection is ineluctably part of the present. This, I take it, is what lies behind the debate concerning whether it is actually possible to live as the Pyrrhonist skeptics advocate one should. That is, the debate concerns whether it is possible to live without beliefs, which is the same thing, really, as asking whether it is possible to live without reflecting on experience. Maybe that is possible for animals. It does not appear possible, however, for human beings. We cannot help but reflect on our experience and how we reflect on our experience is an important constituent of that experience. The skeptics were right about that. Thinking, for example, that an experience is bad, while it may not actually make the experience bad, will more than likely make it worse than if one could refrain from such reflections.

There is another side to that coin though. Human beings are thinking creatures. They like thinking. Audi talks about that as well. Yes, knowledge has practical value. But that isn’t the only reason we pursue it. We pursue it, Audi points out, because it is intrinsically valuable. We like knowing things; we like understanding things.  Knowledge and understanding are necessary for a fully satisfying human life, even for the least intellectual among us. That is part of the purpose of education. This point is, I believe, what is missing in Louis Menand’s recent piece about higher education in The New Yorker, “Live and Learn” (June 6, 2011). Menand lists there two different theories of the purpose of higher education. The first is an intellectually elitist one in which the purpose is to sort out the best and the brightest so that they may be funneled into occupations that will further what can be broadly viewed as the progress of society. The second is a democratic one in which the purpose is to solidify social bonds by “producing a society of like-minded grownups.” Neither theory says anything about the potential of a higher education to enhance the quality of a person’s life. Yet this, I would argue, is not only one of the purposes of education recognized by the Enlightenment, but the single most important purpose. Who cares how “advanced” or how “democratic” a society is if the people who make it up are unhappy?

Human beings are thinking creatures. They have an inherent need to reflect on their experiences, to make some kind of sense of them. They can live in the moment, as people say, for only so long without wanting something more lasting, more substantial, something that will connect all the disparate temporal pieces of their lives together into some sort of meaningful whole, something that will give an overarching meaning not merely to an individual life, but to a larger whole of which an individual life is only a part. And, of course, there are better and worse ways of doing this. We don’t want any old overarching account of the meaning of life. We want a coherent one. We want one that makes sense of our experience. We want one that will survive the tests of new experiences; one that will withstand scrutiny and the production of such an account requires a great deal of reflection, rigorous analysis, and even imagination. We may never actually finish the project of producing such an account, but the activity of its production, no matter how large or how small a portion of our waking life it consumes (and it will consume greater or lesser amounts of people’s lives depending on how reflective they are by nature), is crucial to a satisfying human life.

When I was a child and would sometimes complain to my mother that I was bored, she would respond derisively that I must not have much imagination. I don’t remember whether she elaborated on that, but whether she stated it explicitly, or whether I simply inferred it, I was given to understand that imagination was a very desirable thing and that people whose complaints of boredom betrayed that they had less than the ideal quantity of it were to be pitied as pathetic creatures hardly elevated above brutes. Nowadays parents will spare no expense in their efforts to provide their children with stimulating toys. My parents, in contrast, maintained that a child with a respectable degree of imagination could amuse itself with almost anything and, in fact, my sisters and I were very adept at inventing imaginary worlds. I created whole villages of tall grasses with populations of tiny broken sticks in the vacant lot at the end of our street. Knives and spoons and forks were men and women and youths and plates small skating rinks where my ménages à trois played out their sometimes ill-fated scenarios. I could make everything around me grander and more interesting in my imagination than it was in real life, even while I maintained a keen interest in empirical reality.

The problem with empirical, or perhaps it would be more correct to say concrete reality, as I learned very early, is not actually so much that it is tedious as that it is independent of the will. Not only does it very often not behave as we would wish; it also sometimes seems positively malevolent. Things often do not turn out as we hope, so we are forced continually to dig new channels into which to redirect our desires. This work, over time, can be exhausting. How much easier it is, in a way, simply to withdraw one’s hopes from concrete reality and into the realm of thought.

Thought never disappoints. The more faithful you are to it, the more faithful it is to you. The more time you devote to it, the more it rewards you. It is unfailing that way. Thought is not like the capricious lover, happy one day, impossible to please the next. Thought is patient and always responsive to the one who attends to it. It always waits for you and always receives you warmly on your return. And it is full of friends: Plato and Aristotle, Epictetus and Kant, all wait there like Aspasia, ready to engage, to challenge, to stimulate. Nothing brings me more joy than these timeless companions, these companions who stretch back through the centuries, through the millennia, connecting me with the larger whole of humanity. We understand one another, we look at life in the same way–as food for thought.

Some people say I am irresponsible when I encourage my students to consider doing graduate work in philosophy. There are no jobs now for philosophers. There are no jobs now for anyone though. The unemployed philosopher at least has the consolation of philosophy, of thought; what consolation is there for the unemployed accountant or public relations executive? Jobs come and jobs go, and so do relationships. Another of my students lamented recently that his relationship might keep him out of graduate school because of the reluctance of his partner to relocate. I stared at him uncomprehendingly as he attempted to explain this. I left everything and everyone behind, several times, in my pursuit of my profession–and I would do it again.

People say relationships are the most important thing in life. It’s not that I disagree with this, it’s just that I think relationships cannot be pursued directly. They are things, I believe, that happen during the course of the pursuit of one’s vocation. Just as growth happens without one aiming for it to, relationships happen. Sometimes they are wonderful and sometimes they are torturous; always they make life richer and more meaningful. They can and should be cultivated, once they’ve sprouted, but there is only so much one can do for them and the single most important thing one can do for them, as even the most learned in the psychotherapeutic professions will tell you, is to be happy yourself. You cannot have a positive relationship if you are not a happy person. A relationship cannot make you happy if you are not already happy. Though it can greatly enhance or increase the happiness you bring to it, you’ve got to have a foundation of happiness with which to start. It is a “necessary” condition, even if it is not in itself “sufficient” for ensuring a positive relationship.

It seems only natural to assume that if you cannot get your happiness from a relationship, then you must get it from your work. That, after all, is how you will spend most of your time, even if you are so fortunate as to have a mutually supportive, stimulating and fulfilling relationship, you are still going to be at work more than you are at leisure, so if your work is not itself stimulating and fulfilling you will be forced to try to wring most of your happiness from your relationship. This will likely put more of a burden on it than even the best relationship would be able to bear in the long run.

So pursue the life of the mind, I tell my students, because it is inherently rewarding. If you cultivate thought conscientiously, you will never tire of returning to that garden. The pleasures of thought are an important part, I believe, of the pleasures of the present and the life of the mind is an important part of any fully human life. It has sustained me through many hard times and many failed relationships and it will continue to sustain me, I have no doubt, through more hard times. Nothing but brain damage can take it from me and if that happens it seems likely that it would be a loss I would be unable to mourn.

In the meantime: Nolite purturbare circulos meos.*

* “Do not disturb my circles!” These are the purported last words of the Greek mathematician Archimedes who, it is said, sat calmly engrossed in mathematical reflections when he was killed by a Roman soldier as Rome was taking Corinth.