Short film #2 in Phillip McReynolds‘s American Philosopher series offers a few pieces of information that divide up into histories of the early lives of contemporary American philosophers and the early life of philosophy in historic America. The former, tales about the temptations of philosophy in the early lives of modern thinkers, makes up the majority of the segment’s 10 minutes. It offers a good potopourri of experiences which led those interviewed into the “life of the mind”–ranging from those whose privileged and intellectually-amiable environments invited the depth of thought to those hardships or lack of privilege seemed to demand it. Many of their stories sound as if they would be quite interesting, if they were more thoroughly fleshed out. There were a few noticeable themes (each with exceptions) among the stories, such as an initial interest in pursuing religious questions or the experience of the befuddled parent when each philosopher broached his or her intended career choice.
All in all, I don’t think much of what was revealed was unexpected. I have seriously considered academic philosophy, and my gateway into such considerations stem from my personal experiences with both ends of the experiential gamut described by these philosophers. For instance, on the one hand, I grew up in an environment wherein thought was considered something to be nurtured. This is one of the best privileges youth can be given, in my humble opinion1. I think this kind of philosophical thought reflects the traditional Aristotelian sentiment that philosophy begins in wonder. When allowed and encouraged to think philosophically, these thoughts and the concomitant practical manifestations of their realization are rewards which encourage yet more reflection. I only wish more youth had these experiences growing up.
The second general category of experiences which led those interviewed to lean philosophical relate to observed and felt problems or injustices. This type of motivation better reflects Simon Critchley’s assertion that “Philosophy begins in disappointment.”. People see or experience something which seems at odds with the notion of a just or moral universe, and they need to explain it in order to feel that it can be ameliorated (or perhaps simply to cope).
While I suspect that it was the latter of these two options which more closely describes my experience (at a young age, I was deeply affected by certain historical moral failures of humanity, not to mention a few salient tangible examples of contemporary moral and economic inequity), once again I am tempted to take the both/neither approach to conceiving of these two different motivations for engaging philosophical thought. If anything, philosophical thought—and I would like to emphasize American philosophy in particular here—has to do with coming to conceive of the wonder of experiences while simultaneously recognizing the deficiencies of the world. In other words, we can conceptualize moral ideals, be amazed by the capabilities of the human mind, and feel awe of nature yet we also witness moral failure, mental error, and destruction and disorder. It better characterizes philosophy, I think, to say it begins in realizing the discrepancy between the ideal (and experienced) wonder and the actualized experienced disappointment.
From the sound of these interviews, it sounds like most of these thinkers began struggling with these sorts of issues at a very young age. Part of me finds this a bit discouraging, actually. Although I did get a bit of philosophy early on in life (Somehow, I took it upon myself to read2 Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, the State, and Utopia when I was in middle school. There were a few other odd text tidbits I picked up in high school, but I distinctly remember remember not knowing who Plato was my freshman year of college). This is partially disheartening because it makes me feel a bit behind in the race for deep-enough philosophical thought, but I find it worrisome much moreso because I fear that many who were not encouraged to think deeply at an early age will have great difficulty conceptualizing things critically later on in life…and, yes, I do know that this is dangerously close to the fallacy of denying the antecedent.
The last little chunk of this mini-film discusses the first American philosophers. They begin with a good candidate, Jonathan Edwards (b. 1703) and skip all the way to Ralph Waldo Emerson (b. 1803–a century later). While this I think agreement on this is pretty widespread, I’m tempted to say there must be some other major philosophical figures, especially political-philosophical figures, who qualify as American philosophers. I’d love to hear some good suggestions on who they might be and what how they made sense of their worlds. Surely, as implied by the close relationship anecdotally drawn between religious thought and philosophy in the examples of these interviewees, there were a few creative ministers or theologians who qualify as searching for philosophical answers to the “big questions”. I have found this Dictionary of Early American Philosophers to page through, but it all seems a slough of names at this point. Suggestions are welcome.