Monday, July 13, 2009

Windows Rather Than Mirrors

I must confess: I am not a philosopher. Neither am I a literary theorist. But a couple months ago I was reading this review of a collection of essays by and about Umberto Eco. I admit, the review was not easy for me to follow, but I plodded through it, reading sentences two and three times if needed. Near the end, this passage really jumped out at me:

If anything marks the personality and writing of Umberto Eco, it is an insatiable curiosity, love, and sense of wonder about the world. He’s having a good time, to be sure, but good times aren’t the point. It’s rather that the world itself — in all its intractable, intricate, deliciously ambiguous, quotidian reality — is to Eco so astonishingly rich. It’s there on every page: this man is mad to know about things, not as a projection of his needs or wants, but as having their own intrinsic interest, indeed dignity. Kant was like that, come to think of it, and Aristotle too.

In contrast, the [Richard] Rorty I find as model author of this text, taking his random walk through life, tossed this way and that depending on the books he’s most recently come across, seems such a tepid character. He position is consummately worked out, but it seems so boringly inward-directed, with every book a mirror, instead of a window.

As a PhD student, I have spent the last nineteen years of my life in school. (Twenty if you want to count that half-day kindergarten class.) In spite of that, I am afraid that I spend most of my time with a pre-arranged plan plan for my studies, lining up the evidence to fit my personal predilections. It is a rare day when I approach the evidence with a genuine desire to follow where it leads me.

I think it was in my very first class at UD that I was told about the philosophic cast of mind. More than a discipline, philosophy is a way of thinking, and it requires three things: (1) withdrawal from the distractions of everyday life, (2) a sense of wonder about the world, in all its forms, and (3) a firm commitment to inquiry over whatever system one has constructed. I usually possess genuine wonder about the topic on which I am working, but too often I ignore neighboring topics of potentially great value. I am withdrawn from the world in the sense of being in the ivory tower of academia, but that is itself a very hustle-bustle kind of world. And it is a rare day when I am willing to overturn my whole system of thought if further inquiry proves it inadequate.

Thus, the piece about Eco was quite refreshing, for the simple reason that I had to struggle to follow it. Once I was in it, I was driven by the simple desire to understand the ideas being communicated, not to put them in one of my pre-labeled boxes. I really should pick up philosophy more often...
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