Amy is a summer 2020 student intern—this is a blog about her research, reading, and work.
At the end of March, I was invited to join an In Parenthesis reading group that was starting up online. Due to the pandemic, meetings are held on Zoom, opening it up to people like me who live far away and in a different continent. We have continued to meet every week since March with six to as much as twelve of us chatting about our ideas, thoughts, and questions from selected texts.
I’ve enjoyed becoming more familiar with the Quartet through this group for several reasons, but perhaps the most relevant point right now is that the group offers regular engagement with other thinkers—it’s an occasion for me to get out of my head and remember what philosophy is really for. Sure, I enjoy thinking about philosophical puzzles, but I don’t think that philosophy is very useful when it stays in the abstract or theoretical realm. Philosophy (at least to me) is about developing conceptual tools for approaching the difficulties of life, for sorting out the often confusing and chaotic events of our world, and learning to (hopefully) live better lives.
The history of philosophy shows us that it is far too easy to get caught up in the theoretical worlds we create; without others around us to remind us of our shared reality, the imagined world might look more real (and comfortable) than what is actually real.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the dangers of isolated thinking primary because of the intern work I’m doing for In Parenthesis. I’m creating a podcast to accompany school materials, and the first segment is based on Mary Midgley’s “Rings and Books” (available here https://www.womeninparenthesis.co.uk/rings-and-books-by-mary-midgley/). In this essay, Midgley points out that the vast majority of famous philosophers were male bachelors and so philosophy has been dominated by ideals and assumptions from that particular, isolated, way of life. Unlike a married person, the bachelor can easily go about their life without paying mind to anyone too different, and they would likely have no reason to seek out other (dissenting) voices or even consider that other ways of life could differ from their own to any significant extent. In contrast, married philosophers, who lived in close proximity with a spouse, seemed to have noticed that different people have different experiences of the world. (Midgley uses Aristotle as an example.) In a family or close relationship, you make yourself available to disturbances from those with whom you share life; you have regular, living reminders that your thoughts and worldview are not universal or generalizable to all people. Family and close relationships are an occasion to be brought out of our own thinking—other examples could include a hovering kestrel or piece of art. Regular experiences of being struck or disturbed out of the comfort of our systems of understanding remind us that we are not the arbiters of reality. Without occasions that remind us of our ignorance, it’s really easy to stay in our heads and continue to ignore others’ experiences and our shared reality. Like Midgley, here I too point to Descartes as an example: while sitting by a fire, alone, he was able to doubt the existence of other people (and his own body), but he didn’t doubt his own thinking self. If he had been married (or had lived in close relationship with others) perhaps this doubt wouldn’t have been so easy.
For Descartes, other people’s existence has to be inferred, and the inference is a most insecure one. … Now I rather think that nobody who was playing a normal active part among other human beings could regard them like this. But what I am quite sure of is that for anybody living intimately with them as a genuine member of the family, Cogito would be Cogitamus; their consciousness would be every bit as certain as his own. (Midgley, “Rings and Books”)
Midgley’s essay can be read as a warning against thinking in isolation—a message that is particularly relevant during a global pandemic. I used to work in my university’s library and chat on occasion with other students about our work, but now the library is closed and we all work from home. Conversations are scheduled and held online—I don’t run into dissenters or other points of views by chance. Since seeking out other experiences is difficult even when the world isn’t in lockdown, it’s easy to accidentally disconnect and stay in my own (comfortable) conception of the world.
But staying physically separate does not have to mean relational separation—it just means we have to be more intentional about creating space for conversations and sharing ideas. That’s why I’m thankful for reading groups—they bring me out of my isolated world of theory and they are a regular reminder that my voice is not the only one worth considering.