How to have your life saved? Go to prison and read some philosophy there

6. Q. How to live?: A. Use little tricks

This week’s chapter starts with:

“About academic philosophers, Montaigne was usually dismissive: he disliked their        pedantries and abstractions. But he showed an endless fascination for another tradition in philosophy: that of the great pragmatic schools which explored such questions as how to cope with a friend’s death, how to work up courage…and how to make the most of life.”

One man immediately wondered about who the “academic philosophers” were, why the Hellenists, in contrast (Bakewell notes that Montaigne loved them), were thought not to be academic philosophers, and especially, whether or why philosophers should be held to any different practical standards than any other professional field, such as physics. Thus was a great debate launched about first, whether philosophers should be required to have their work have an impact on life on the street (as they put it). The group was divided on this matter, but it turned out that they were at least as divided on the question of what counted as having pragmatic value at all. Must it bake bread? Must it answer questions? And if it must answer questions must it do so in a way that anyone could understand? One man mentioned Berkeley, whom we read with great difficulty some time back, but who influenced his thinking about the nature of knowledge. I gave the example of GE Moore’s attack on the idealist’s claim that time is unreal – what could the claim mean if not that e.g., the talk of having had breakfast before work is wrong in some way (false or meaningless)? And what a doozy of a deeply philosophically interesting backfire that example led to! The native American member of the group made a strong case that in fact that claim that time is unreal could merely reflect the view that all of our ways of thinking and talking about time are merely conventional and that indeed 10:00 a.m., for example, as a time doesn’t really exist. He went on to say that Native American ways of talking about and thinking about humans’ relationship to nature is very different from that of people caught up in the hustle and bustle of the ways of the modern world, and that though those differences in whole worldviews might be distant enough from the day to day that they might be hard to connect back to the frameworks, that doesn’t make them any less real or significant.

Next he pointed out that the suicide rate of Native Americans (and Native American men in particular) is many times higher the general population. So what? Someone asked.  “Being in prison and in this group where I’ve learned a lot about ideas, some of them very abstract, may have saved my life.”

We wanted to hear more but ran out of time.

Somehow though just before we got hustled angrily out of the classroom by the guard – we lingered to hear out a sentence after the Go back! which I won’t do again – someone managed to wedge in the question of what I thought of the Miss America competition announcement that they’re ditching the swim suit segment of the competition. Ha! In this respect our meeting last week put me firmly in mind of my seminars for first years in which students (well, some anyway) treat me almost like an oracle, and seem to be endlessly interested in my views about just about anything.


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