Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Uses of Philosophy, Part 2: Coolness of Mind

How do you get the philosopher off your porch? 
Pay for the pizza.

Jokes like this demonstrate the eternal verity that philosophy is useless, an attitude that goes back to ancient times.  As a person who makes a living teaching and writing about philosophy, you’d expect me to disagree with this negative assessment of philosophy.  And I do!  Back in 2015 I wrote a post called “Three Uses of Philosophy” that suggested philosophy has at least three uses: it can be fun, it cultivates intellectual skills such as critical thinking, and it can make us less dogmatic.

I happen to think that philosophy has lots of uses, a lot more than three, anyway.  So I decided to make a series based on my earlier post.  Another use occurred to me a few months ago when I was teaching the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza in one class and the classical Indian skeptics Nāgārjuna, Jayarāśi, and Śrī Harṣa in another.  I call this coolness of mind, a state in which your worries melt away, a freedom from the heat of mental disturbance and the churnings of suffering and anxiety.  Coolness of mind contains a subtle and peaceful beauty of its own, like the quiet of the desert just before dusk or a moonlit midnight after a gentle snowfall.

Spinoza: The Coolness of God/Nature

While there are ways in which Spinoza is the first distinctively modern philosopher (his thoroughgoing rejection of superstition, for instance), there is one way in which he is in the vein of the ancient Greek and Roman world.  For Spinoza, the end result of his philosophical activity is a personal transformation, much as it was for ancient Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics.  For Spinoza, this state involves learning to engage in what he calls “intellectual love of God.”

Spinoza has, to put it mildly, an idiosyncratic concept of God.  For him, God just is Nature.  Whether this commits Spinoza to a kind of pantheism or not, his concept of God is so strange that many people, both critics and fans, have said he’s really a kind of atheist.  Fortunately that debate and much of the dizzyingly complex nature of Spinoza’s philosophy are beside my point here (although I wholeheartedly encourage you to pick up Spinoza’s Ethics to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of metaphysical system, which is delightfully set forth in geometric form).  Whatever God/Nature is, we humans become more complete, more serene through the rational contemplation of the essence of God/Nature.

One of Spinoza’s descriptions of a transformed person who is experiencing the most meaningful of human lives appears (appropriately enough for Douglas Adams fans) in Proposition 42 of Book V of the Ethics:

“… the wise man, insofar as he is considered as such, suffers scarcely any disturbance of spirit, but being conscious, by virtue of a certain eternal necessity, of himself, of God and of things, never ceases to be, but always possesses true spiritual contentment.” (Translated by Samuel Shirley)

Is it easy to achieve such a state?  Of course not.  A few lines later, you can find my all-time favorite quote from Spinoza: “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

Ancient Coolness: Skepticism in India and the Mediterranean

For Spinoza, having the right kind of knowledge or contemplation is the key to coolness of mind.  The truth shall set you free, although “freedom” is really a kind of necessity for Spinoza (one of the endearing oddities he shares with some ancient Stoics).

But there is another route to coolness of mind.  You might engage in the philosophical pursuit of truth and come up short, but instead of frustration, you might find a kind of tranquility.  You might achieve what ancient Greek and Roman skeptics called “freedom from disturbance” or what Nāgārjuna called “pacification of conceptual proliferation.”  You might use philosophical thinking to unravel your mania for philosophical answers.  You might harness the power of philosophical skepticism to cultivate coolness of mind.

There are a variety of strategies involved and I don’t want to get into the philosophical details (you can find the devil in those details for yourself).  Ancient skeptics in various cultures are united not by what they believe, but by their similar methods toward an even more similar goal: the purging of the bases of philosophical belief as a means to coolness of mind.

Say you read Spinoza and find him intriguing, but you can’t quite get on board with his baroque metaphysical beliefs.  Skeptics may have something for you.  Whereas Spinoza, Stoics, and others think the truth shall set you free, skeptics think freedom consists precisely in learning to be okay with not knowing the truth, with seeing that any view you put forward might contain serious flaws, either internally or by opposition to another equally convincing view.

But neither do you give up entirely on the truth.  Ancient skeptics would call most modern day postmodernists and relativists “negative dogmatists” – just because you haven’t found the truth doesn’t mean it’s not there!

I think ancient skeptics might provide us with a middle way between obnoxious dogmatists who think they know the truth and obnoxious dogmatists who scoff at the very idea of truth.  Whether I’m right about that or not (and I may not be), ancient skeptical methods of cultivating coolness of mind can be useful.

Early in my graduate school career, I thought there was something wrong with me.  Some of this was run-of-the-mill imposter syndrome, but some of it was because, unlike most philosophers, I didn’t have strong opinions about philosophical issues.  Should we be realists or anti-realists about truth and scientific inquiry?  Should we be utilitarians, deontologists, or virtue ethicists?  Should we accept paraconsistent logics or stick with classical logic?  Do we have non-conceptual experience akin to “raw data” or is our experience always already conceptualized?  Should we be internalists or externalists, contextualists or invariantists?  Should we be metaphysical libertarians or compatibilists?

I see pretty good reasons in favor of all of these views, but just as importantly, I also see serious flaws with each of them.  Of course, I sometimes succumb to temptation and lean in one direction (I lean pretty far in the compatibilist direction and I’ve been gravitating more toward realism and virtue ethics in recent years).

What ancient skepticism taught me is that it’s okay to admit you don’t know.  This is a powerful message in the world of professional academic philosophy, where careers are made by the relentless defense of views; it’s even more powerful in our contemporary world that demands instantaneous certainty on social media and obsessive commitment to a view regardless of reasons, evidence, or complexity (the current President of the United States is one salient example here, although this attitude can be found in some of his critics as well).

Objection: Who wants to be cool?

But isn’t mental coolness a kind of zombified state detached from what makes you you?  Is it, as contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued, a route to indifference to your loved ones or an excuse for resignation in the face of injustice?  Is it a withdrawal from your humanity or bad faith sublimation of the angst inherent in human existence?

In a properly philosophical spirit, I can’t claim to fully answer these objections.  Doing so requires more philosophy!  But I can point out that coolness of mind isn’t the only use of philosophy.  Other uses, like critical thinking or fun, might pull you back into philosophical or political engagement. 

But having experienced coolness of mind might give you some wherewithal to engage in those things with a little more focus, perspective, and compassion for yourself and others.  As the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume suggested, being skeptical in your study might make you a little less likely to become a dogmatic know-it-all in the rest of your life.

If anything, a few moments of coolness of mind now and then might, as Jayarāśi says, open you up to the joys of human life.  It might, like Nāgārjuna modeled, be a way out of suffering and attachment, or it might, following Spinoza, be the key to the meaning of life itself.  At least for a certain kind of person who can’t just switch off their mind at will, philosophical paths to coolness of mind are about as useful as anything could be.

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