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Are You a Philosopher or a Popularizer?

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Must I choose?

08052013-tumblr_mqzif3nYDT1r31mkdo1_500In recent conversation with a local philosopher and food writer, we got to talking about the work of a philosopher in the world today. There’s teaching, which employs academic rigor to help students understand where philosophy has been and what it has been up to. There’s research, typically a subset of teaching, that sorts truth from fiction and sometimes swaps the two. And then there’s, well…that’s it. That’s what a philosopher does in our culture.

Teaches.

Teaches rarified stuff only a few understand and even fewer care about.

Which is not to say philosophy is not happening all over the place.

I’ve begun to argue we’re all philosophizing all the time. We’re not all at the highly abstracted levels represented by academic philosophy. But we’re all in the business of making meaning. Most of us don’t much think about it: once we’ve figured out the basics of family and job and faith and community, the business of meaning-making largely runs on auto-pilot. Until we get cancer. Or age. Or lose a spouse.

Or see a sunrise.

The more questions we ask in everyday life—the less we take as a given—the more life we experience. This is the wonder of being amazed at the small connections that occupy those making meaning every day. Which should be all of us.

My recent conversation turned to the author Alain de Botton, who I described as a philosopher but then back pedaled. We allowed he was certainly a popularizer. I’m a fan of de Botton. I like the places his books send me and the meaning-making tasks he introduces. I also like to read Damon Young, the Australian who is a bona fide philosopher and card-carrying popularizer (meaning only that he regularly publishes philosophy columns in Australian newspapers).

I’m not sure so a philosopher cannot also be a popularizer.

I’ll argue my friend’s food writing displays a philosophical bent even as he courageously walks into the smallest, diviest joints in the metro. I’ll also argue that the ordinary conversations we have with each other, the ones where we try to sort out the details of life together, are themselves often instances of practicing a sort of popular philosophy.

Ordinary conversation is the very stuff of thinking together.

I hope it becomes more popular.

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Image credit: Via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

August 5, 2013 at 10:02 am

What Didn’t You See Today?

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pylon of the month

Giant Metal Men Matter

Have you noticed the gigantic metal men standing in your neighborhood? One’s over there, just above the tree line. Enormous and sinister. Sort of hulking at around 100 ft. tall. What’s that–you’ve not noticed it? How could you miss it, standing there in the wide open? Your kids saw it and have already made up stories about it: why it’s there and how it could reach down and grab anybody at any moment so let’s not spend too much time beneath it.

Electrical pylons are just one of the things we miss as we walk or drive around our city. They only become visible when someone shows you. Then you see them. Your eyes probably registered the shape and presence, but somehow the tall tower did not enter your consciousness. You needed someone to point it out—not that you particularly care about pylons. Same with people: do we even notice the janitor cleaning the corridor at the airport or the clerk at the grocery store? We are trained to have these people blend into the background, just like the pylons. Just like the homeless guy at the stop light on Hennepin and Lyndale. It makes our life easier—less to deal with—when we don’t see these things or people.

How much we are missing when we tune out stuff we don’t want to deal with?

One of my clients is trying to help a particular set of physicians tune in to a class of patients that are largely unstudied. These patients present with certain features in their heart that routinely exclude them from pharmaceutical and other clinical trials. The conventional wisdom is that the outcomes would be significantly worse if these patients were included. So they aren’t. It’s a kind of research Catch-22.

My challenge this week is how to help these physicians see these patients. These patients cannot be treated until they are seen. Which is true for all the invisible stuff in our lives: we can’t deal with it as long as it is out of sight.

More on pylon appreciation: Alain de Botton from The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

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Written by kirkistan

March 2, 2011 at 8:37 am

Listen Up: #2 in the Dummy’s Guide to Conversation

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The problem with listening is the other people who keep talking

You’ve opened your pie hole and made like a human: shaping experience into words that can be understood by the humans around you (though it’s still a bit fuzzy how anyone understands anything). You anticipate being stopped dead in your tracks with realization or wonder, right in the middle of a conversation.

But there’s a step to bridge the two: you’ve got to listen.

The traditional problem with listening is other people: they keep talking. When they are talking, you are not at the center and they keep uttering words that don’t refer to you. For instance: they rarely mention your name, which you keenly listen for. They keep talking about their own experience. Why, oh why, don’t they stop talking and ask me about me?

Let me introduce you to three friends who knew something about listening: Mortimer Adler, Alain de Botton and Jesus the Christ. I met Mortimer Adler when I read his book, “How to Read a Book.” Why read a book on how to read a book? Because of the author’s crazy fascination with understanding. He didn’t just read, he annotated, he outlined and he synthesized. He labored over passages in long conversations with the authors. Plus, he made it sound like fun (which it is!). Of course, there is not enough time to do that with every book, so Adler picked what he called the “Great Books.” His Great Books program has gone in and out of style over years, depending on your politics and your conclusions about who qualifies as worth reading.

Alain de Botton writes readable books that satisfy his curiosity and pull his readers into the vortex of questions he counts as friends. If you’ve ever wondered how electricity gets to your house or what is the process behind producing biscuits (that is, cookies) or why Proust is worth reading or why Nietzsche was not a happy-go-lucky guy, de Botton is the author you want.

Jesus the Christ knew something about listening, despite being both God and man. His human condition opened a limiting opportunity which in turn caused him to steal away for hours to converse with the God of the universe. I go into depth on this in Listentalk. But the point is that prayer, which is ultimately more about listening than talking, was a preoccupation of the man who was God.

Listening opens us to hearing—which sounds like “duh” except for when you examine your own listening practices and realize how often you are thinking of something else entirely when your spouse/child/boss/friend/neighbor appears to be talking. But to really hear, to be crazy to understand, to be curious and to be committed to connection opens us to the place where we can be stopped dead in our tracks.

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Listentalk Chapter 4 Synopsis: Extreme Listening

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Extreme listening adds intent to our ordinary encounters: purposeful and expectant waiting, watching and hearing for life-altering content. But is that too big a burden for everyday conversation? Perhaps conversation was made both for casual and in-depth need: flexing the moment interest turns hot for the true seeker? Extreme listening helps us sort our multitude of messages with keen observation and pointed hunger. We sort for what we need based on a clarifying sense of who we are and where we’re going.

Mortimer Adler and Alain de Botton exhibit habits of extreme listening, as is clear from the results of their work. Jesus the Christ spent considerable time in conversation with the God of the Universe, as much more than a disinterested conversation partner—He was intent on hearing because of so much that was required of Him.

Today pockets of extreme listening are motivated by strategic intent to serve communities, clients or shareholders, to grow customers, to capture potential buyers right at their point of decision. The chapter suggests listening-rhetoric as the engine behind our communication and also points out attitudes that support extreme listening.

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Written by kirkistan

November 22, 2010 at 6:51 am

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work [Book Review]

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deBotton-51+ENmmzz4L__SS500_Alain de Botton (The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, (NY: Pantheon Books, 2009)) is the guy you want on your next trip. He sees things the rest of us pass over as invisible: the electrical pylons running zig zag across the countryside, the huge grey warehouses plunked into industrial areas, the airplane junkyard in the California desert. And then he does one better by somehow inviting himself in to hear about the work and workers who made or use these invisible objects. All this curiosity is in the service of the question: What is it people really do all day with their time? And could I really understand even if they told me?

De Botton reveals the glories of tuna, from the Indian ocean to a grocer and table at home in London; the secrets of shipping (ships, warehouses, labyrinthine but well-timed world-wide movement); biscuit (cookie) production, rocket science, accountancy, painting and other things. Each a fascinating journey into the work practices and one psyche of the worker and artist.

De Botton seems to understand much, especially about the joy of finding meaningful work and the despair of having meaning sucked away. Where solitary baking for oneself or one’s family can be a joy, when the process is set on an assembly line with each stop isolated and optimized for the biscuit factory floor, when responsibility has been removed from each individual worker, it is up to the bosses and managers to re-inject purpose back into the work. Much like slipping niacin and riboflavin back into the stripped- down biscuit recipe.

Always entertaining, de Botton doesn’t mind climbing up on his soapbox from time to time to deliver mini-sermons about the nature of work. De Botton’s “School of Life” espouses the return of the secular sermon, so it is not surprising The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work does not mention the Creator’s involvement in our work. That’s too bad, because there is much to commend the (Biblical) notions that we were made to work, that when our work is harnessed to serve others (versus fulfilling our demand for meaning) we can find moments of transcendence. Plus the added bonus of the truth of the Biblical notion. De Botton does, however, offer robust hints about our current obsession with finding meaningful work. Namely, we add to the pressure when we expect our work to fulfill us. Another criticism may be the occasional flights of fancy de Botton takes as he verbalizes what may or may not be occurring in the minds of these workers.

A very entertaining read.  Highly recommended.

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Written by kirkistan

August 3, 2009 at 3:00 am

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