Friday, October 18, 2013

φιλοσοφἰα, γυνἠ, part one

            Philosophia.  The original meaning is "love of wisdom."  That's a lovely original meaning.
            I go back and forth on the term "philosophy."  For now, I am happiest with the phrase, "the life of the mind."  Philosophy has started to sound so cold, and what drew me to the life of the mind (originally) was much, much more personal.  It was an aching loneliness, that started sometime in grade school.
            So here, for the next two or three posts, I will stories centering around two different words.
            First, a chronology.

            Long time ago:  Somebody writes the fucking book of Genesis, which is one of the better pieces of literature.  But strange once you read the really old creation myths.  In which the reader discovers that most of humanity believed that the world was created by a goddess and a serpent, and the whole dude thing didn't show up until much later.

            Approximately 1933-1945:  Shoah, or the Holocaust.  Or the really brilliant PR concept, the Final Solution.  During Shoah, probably around 6 million Jews were killed by Nazi programs in and around Germany.  If we broaden to "the Holocaust," and include in that all of the religious dissenters, homosexuals, Romani, disabled, and other lives deemed unacceptable by Germany, the number rises to about 5 million more humans, for a total of approximately 11 million people dead.

           1991:  I started attending the public junior high in Mercer Island.  I lived on Mercer Island, but until then my mom had driven me to another nearby town to go to a small Christian school there.  Because I hadn't been going to the public schools where I lived, I hadn't known much about the demographics of my own neighborhood.  One of my first discoveries was Jewish kids.  Lots of Jewish kids.  I was initially thrilled to discover that the Hebrews of the Bible had survived in the modern era.  I had thus far believed them to be extinct because we always talked about them in the past tense in church and school.
            I was, however, quickly apprised of the events of the Holocaust.  Being raised in an Evangelical home and church, with a heavy emphasis on guilt, and being mostly German American, the results were fairly predictable.  Not least because — and this itself was probably due to the historical influences on Mercer Island's ethnic composition — everyone my age was obsessed with ethnicity.  When you were meeting a peer for the first time, you would exchange names, ages, and would immediately be asked something like, "Where is your family from originally?"
            If I'd had any sense, I would have said I was Scottish.  My last name is Scottish.  But I am predominantly German, and compulsively honest.  So when the inevitable, "What ethnicity are you?" came up, I couldn't stop myself from saying "German."  The responses were less than favorable.  Usually it was just a quiet "Oh," and they would suddenly be not interested in being my friend.  Once, I got a horrified, "You're a Nazi."  Luckily even then I saw some of the silliness of this.  (Some.)  But it didn't change the fact that my family's origins shaped my whole social experience of junior high.  And, perhaps most importantly, I knew it.

            What got me interested in philosophy — probably between the ages of thirteen and fourteen — was neither the supposed topics, nor any interest in a method of questioning.  It was weirdness.  My weirdness.  Weirdness, and its requisite alienation.  It was being an outsider, having no friends to eat lunch with at school, and every time I did try to talk to my peers I was terrified by how casually they seemed to take life, and how seriously I took it.  You could call it being uptight, on my part.  And also, loneliness.

            At the church I went to in high school, the pastors were fond of expounding on "the roots of words."  These were mostly botched attempts, which frequently conflated the history of the form of a word, with the history of its meaning.  The word "sin" is a great example of this.  Or the etymology of a word — say, "woman" — would be used the prove the accuracy of the same ideology which gave rise to the word in the first place.

            Eventually, in college, men discovered me.  The supposed consolation of human companionship was mostly supposed; still, I was distracted from philosophy, from my newly discovered smarter-than-thou status, and thought I had found a cure for my isolation:  sex!
            Still the loneliness continued, and I discovered many of the real reasons so many women are suspicious of men.  And being intellectual does not help.  Most intellectual men want a woman who will "Ooooh" and "Aaaahh" to their fascinating observations, and less intellectually oriented men seem to resent the idea of a female companion being smarter than them.

            Philosophia is a beautiful word, with an important original meaning.  These days, it feels like a word for something out of reach.  Every time I use the word "philosophy," I feel like I'm in a Monty Python skit and the skies should pop open with a booming voice:  PHILOSOPHY.  I dig Monty Python, but such antics make me feel awkward and unfunny.  Not so much inspired to join in the conversation.
            But this feeling isn't an accident.  It would appear that the only way to get called a "philosopher" is to go to a university and get a doctorate.  Now that is a very, very expensive way to read books, write papers, and sit around discussing them both.  But academicians keep encouraging us to view philosophy as a highly specialized field, because why else would anyone be willing to spend that kind of money or, more realistically, take out loans they'll be paying off for the next thirty years?
            It remains to be seen if this trend will change for the better anytime soon.  I am encouraged by a lot of what I hear/read going on outside of the academy; for example, at Partially Examined Life* and at Philosophy Bites**, whose own Nigel Warburton recently left the academy because he isn't so sure it's the best place to do philosophy anymore.  But I'm not convinced this exactly heralds a sea change.  Both Philosophy Bites and Partially Examined Life focus almost exclusively on responding to the same people and topics that are dealt with in the academy.  It's not that I think the academy has it wrong about the importance of the philosophical literary tradition and its foci.  It's just that I'm not sure when we can expect to see non-academicians coming up with original, well-articulated ideas that are taken seriously enough to make it to some kind of larger discourse.  Unless/until that happens, it seems we are stuck with the academic model, both in terms of what subjects are discussed, and which interlocutors are taken seriously.

*  Which is awesome, by the way.  Totally worth checking out.
**  Which is also awesome, and much more succinct.



  1. i like the older creation myths where dude creates the world by masturbation.

  2. Speaking of good Greek words...

    Doula (doo’-luh) is a Greek word referring to an experienced woman who helps other women.

    Appropriate about now, yes?

  3. I have similar feelings about the beauty of Philosophia and the discomfort with "Philosophy." I suppose it's the same with any abused, or merely overused, term. It picks up baggage. It comes to mean things out in the world that you would never want it to mean.

    I think we should all chuck away any prospect of being CALLED a "philosopher," and just (this is the burned out academic talking, partly) and just find ways to make a living that still allows our minds to explore freely.

    This post makes me want to reread (where is my copy?) John Gardner's novel, "The Wreckage of Agathon," about a colorful Athenian philosopher who lives on a diet of onions, because, yeah, he's freelance. It's been years, but I found it delightful, and it might be a good model for those of us who do not wish for the shackles of the academy.

    And I think I will have other comments on this later...

  4. Oh, and a minor point: the dilemma you paint as an intellectual woman -- is it still that way, or just in those college years? I'm very familiar with what it's like to be an introverted intellectual man, but it's a different dynamic for women, isn't it? The male ego, other than my own, is never a hurtle in relationships for straight guys.

    But is it still such a trap, either men who want their own intellectual ideas to be the focus, or dimmer men who want your ideas suppressed? I would think (and yes, I'm projecting here) that there are non-competitive intellectual men who would kill (not really) for a gorgeous woman who could also exchange interesting ideas, someone he could really talk to, be interested in at ALL levels.

    I suppose that which is a burden in youth can become a godsend in later years. Probably true of lots of things. I wish those quality connections for you.

    1. The dilemma still carries over, but not nearly as badly because, 1) I started getting a lot more up front about my intellect with men, in order to scare off the weaklings from the start, and 2) as luck would have it, I stopped being attracted to men who aren't confident about where they stand intellectually. Both help a lot. But stand by for the next installment! That second word...

    2. Some of us men think your intellect is essential to your (as the Greeks would say) super hotness. Oh wait, "super" is Latin...