Friday, December 01, 2006

From The Wall Street Journal: On the Vapidity of "Personal Philosophies"

Friday, December 1, 2006 12:01 a.m.


Nothing Personal
But this is not philosophy.


"This I Believe" is the title of a new book of essays by authors renowned and unknown alike. The book contains a series of three-page essays that the subtitle calls "The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women." Some of the authors are remarkable--Albert Einstein (whose essay is reproduced from an earlier round of the project), for example, or Bill Gates. Some are remarkable only in the sense that, as elementary-school teachers are fond of saying, "every child is special."

The essays, solicited by and published "in association with" National Public Radio, are arranged in alphabetical order. This has some entertaining effects--Einstein's essay about the importance of "service" and the beauty of the "mysterious" comes immediately before playwright Eve Ensler's discourse on the importance of saying "vagina" often. The alphabetical ordering also means that the first essay, by an apparently charming English professor named Sarah Adams, is about the importance of being "cool to the pizza dude." As a life-rule, it beats Eve Ensler's anatomical imperative. (Although that too has its appeal. My children, for example, love chanting "bathroom language" in public as well.)

Being cool to the pizza dude is of course important: All of us, metaphorically if not literally, find ourselves in the pizza dude's position at some point, serving others in a vulnerable way, at the mercy of thoughtless little cruelties. But treating subordinates right--being "cool" to them--is a "philosophy" only in the basest sense of the word.

Ms. Adams is constrained, however, by the strictures of the genre chosen by the project's editors. A three-page essay cannot really capture a philosophy--even a "personal" one. To be worthy of the name, such a statement ought to be either much, much shorter--e.g., Socrates' idea that the unexamined life is not worth living--or much, much longer. Immanuel Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" approaches 700 pages, none of which, to my knowledge, contain the word "vagina," although "the amphiboly" sounds vaguely like something my mother wouldn't want to hear at the dinner table.

To call Kant's book a "personal philosophy," though, would be misleading, not to mention demeaning. He did not intend his "Critique" as a statement of personal belief. Exactly, one might respond: A "personal philosophy" is not the same thing as "philosophy," and doesn't try to be. But the matter is not so simple. The very phrase "personal philosophy" seeks to traffic in the gravitas of that second word. There's a reason that the book is not subtitled "The Personal Opinions of Random People."

"Personal philosophies" are not a modern innovation. Socrates himself spent his days asking people for theirs--and then poking holes in what he heard. Most of the time, in Plato's telling, his interlocutors reacted by walking away, changing the subject or sticking their fingers in their proverbial ears. Eventually, though, he angered enough people with his incessant questioning that they killed him for it, even though the formal charge read a little differently.

Our rules of public discourse aren't really all that different from those of Socrates' Athens. True, death is generally off the table. But people today do not offer a "personal philosophy" with the notion that someone will challenge them. Ours is a culture of affirmation--people expect a pat on the back simply for stating an opinion. For Socrates, an unexamined belief--or philosophy--was not worth holding, much less publishing. But the worthies at National Public Radio who solicited the manuscripts for "This I Believe" take up the popular view rather than the Socratic one. Studs Terkel, who writes the book's foreword, tells us: "We need not dwell on the old question: What is truth? What you see with your own eyes may differ from the received official truth."

The second statement is unimpeachable; it would make Socrates himself proud in its defiance of authority. But the first sentence bears no relationship to it. To assert that the official truth is wrong is, in fact, to engage the "old question." By saying that we "need not dwell" on what truth is, Mr. Terkel is suggesting that it would be impolite to question these "philosophies" at all. Jay Allison, one of the two editors of the book, makes a similar point in his introduction. "To make such an earnest, exposed statement," he writes about those who submitted essays, "is itself an act of bravery."

If we lived in an age in which people were actually punished for their beliefs, Mr. Allison's claim would make some sense. Even in Socrates' time, the more dangerous occupation was probing the "personal philosophies" of others, not making a statement of one's own. Today, even saying "vagina" onstage doesn't take much courage. Luckily, I won't be made to drink hemlock for saying so.

Mr. Carney is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

1 comment:

Tim said...

That was excellent! The review, that is -- not the book.