Newsletter: April 2021
Spring is springing and over here in the world of online philosophy teaching, winter classes are wrapping up. Monday saw the conclusion of “‘Know Thyself’: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Philosophy and Literature,” where we spent the final weeks discussing the ethical value of literature and contending with contemporary scholars Noël Carroll, Martha Nussbaum, and Joshua Landy. And just yesterday, one of the two sessions of “How Should We Live?: Answers from the Ancient World” concluded with a discussion of the similar-yet-different iconoclasts Zhuangzi and Diogenes the Cynic.
One of the highlights of the past month was a visit to “How Should We Live?” by Mick Hunter, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University. Mick is a scholar of ancient Chinese thought with particular expertise on Confucius and his lecture and Q&A in our virtual classroom was a great learning experience for everyone—myself very much included.
So what’s next? Well, summer courses are brewing. I hope to make an announcement later this month for a summer session that would begin in late May. Watch this space!
Clear spring days are among my favourites on Galiano Island. Getting up before sunrise has been well worth the effort.
UNESCO has marked the third Thursday in November as World Philosophy Day but it might have been more apt to set it for April Fools’ Day. The word “philosophy” derives from the Ancient Greek word for the love of wisdom but one theme through the history of philosophy is the intertwining of wisdom and foolishness.
Thales of Miletus is generally credited with being the first philosopher of ancient Greece. He was also the original absent-minded professor. Legend has it that he was so preoccupied with gazing at the heavens that he fell down a well. His contemporaries mocked him for his stargazing and, initiating a tradition that’s as old as philosophy itself, asked him why he didn’t do something useful for a change. So Thales put his meteorological knowledge to use and made a fortune by anticipating a good olive harvest and buying up all the local olive presses. Having proved the “usefulness” of his knowledge, he went back to philosophy.
Socrates outlines his path to wisdom before a jury of Athenians in Plato’s Apology. Having heard of an oracular pronouncement that declared him the wisest of all men, he was perplexed, not thinking he had any special wisdom to speak of. To prove the oracle wrong, he sought out those reputed to be wise so as to learn from them what true wisdom was. But in each case, he found, those celebrated for their wisdom didn’t really know what they were talking about. “I am wiser than this man,” Socrates reasoned. “It is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” And so, Socrates concluded, the wisest among mortals is the one “who . . . understands that his wisdom is worthless.”
If true wisdom is the recognition of your own foolishness, it should come as no surprise that philosophers often find that their most searching investigations result in confounding paradox. Bertrand Russell claimed that “the point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.” One of the finest spinners of paradox is Zhuangzi, who was one of the protagonists from “How Should We Live?” For him, the very words philosophers use are both necessary and suspect:
“A trap is for fish: when you’ve got the fish, you can forget the trap. A snare is for rabbits: when you’ve got the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words are for meaning: when you’ve got the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find someone who’s forgotten words so I can have a word with him?”
Philosophy isn’t especially useful but, as I’ve argued elsewhere, usefulness is overrated. Philosophers may be the quintessential fools but, as Ludwig Wittgenstein reminds us, “If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.”
Happy April, everyone!