Philosophy for Dummies

Today is an important day in my life – it marks the first day of me being a full-time philosopher. You may be asking yourself what that job exactly entails. When one hears the word – “philosopher” – one usually thinks of old men with long beards arguing over arcane theories which have zero practical application. You may also think of a college student who can’t pick a major and wants to pay back student loans as an Applebee’s waiter. Or you may just think of a twirled-mustache-corduroy fricker pompously sitting in Starbucks reading a book on Plato. All of these stereotypes are sadly close to reality. I attempted to twirl my mustache this morning and have indefinitely retired my razor until my beard grows a proper length; I am even wearing a sweater vest while writing this – “dressing the part” may help stimulate pretentious brain cells. Suffice to say I am trying to bring some legitimacy to my new career which is neither respected nor lucrative.

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Let’s circle back to the question of what the job of philosophy actually entails? My previous co-workers – who I wholeheartedly miss – thought it would be funny to buy me Philosophy for Dummies by Tom Morris; Yes the same series of yellow books that 50-year-olds buy when learning Microsoft Excel. I laughed when I unwrapped this present of “knowledge” and was skeptical about the merit of its content. My skepticism quickly faded when I read that Tom Morris was a Philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame for 15 years and is world-famous for his books and lectures – all detailing how philosophy is practical for the modern world. Morris is not a dry-boring professor but rather a funny down-to-earth guy who once taught one of the most popular classes on Notre Dame’s campus – Philosophy 101. Morris defines philosophy as follows…

“The word philosophy just means ‘love of wisdom.’ This is easy to understand when you realize that love is a commitment, and wisdom is just insight about living. Philosophy, at its best, a passionate commitment to pursuing and embracing the most fundamental truths and insightful perspectives about life.”

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Philosophy is precisely what this blog aims to do – garner more wisdom and insight in order to lead a better life. Morris elegantly states what purpose this “insight” serves…

“Philosophy at its best is an activity more than a body of knowledge. In an ancient sense, done right, it is a healing art. It’s intellectual self-defense. It’s a form of therapy. But it’s also much more. Philosophy is map-making for the soul, cartography for the human journey. It’s an important navgational tool for life that too many modern people try to do without.

Philosophy is merely the act of examining life so that the journey is best enjoyed. To put another way, philosophy is a searching spotlight on a winding road – without the light, it would be easy to miss the scenery and possibly take the wrong path. In respects to illumination, William Ralph Inge once said that “the object of studying philosophy is to know one’s own mind, not other people’s.” Morris adds to this concept…

We question things as deeply as we can, in order to understand as deeply as possible. The ultimate goal is a firmer grip on who we are and what our place in the world really is.

But more often, philosophy can be thought of as a package of existential survival skills, along with the determined application of those skills in a sort of a search-and-rescue mission for the soul. Philosophy is not just a game. It’s not just a mental sport. It is the most vital use of our minds for getting our bearings in life.

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Hence, as a full-time philosopher, I will strive to learn those existential survival skills to not only enhance my own understanding but also my readers’ understanding through this blog and books that I publish. The ultimate goal is to bring the complicated subject of “Philosophy” to a greater number of people and bring it down a couple of pretentious notches. I didn’t go to school for philosophy or have any formal background in the subject – I frankly am taking the advice of one of the greatest philosophers of all time…

“The only true knowledge is knowing that you know nothing.”
-Socrates

It is not the pompous and complacent intellectual who dominates wisdom but rather the humble and curious truth seeker. So I hope that makes my title of philosopher a little less ridiculous sounding and I hope everyone sees that we all have a little Socrates in us – hopefully minus the beard and crappy pay.

The Coldest Journey on Earth

This weekend I started to work on my newly purchased home in Flint, MI. My house is by no means move in ready and is in such disrepair that it has no furnace. Ironically, we needed to do this on a day with a record setting -30 degree windchill. Suffice to say, I was freezing my butt crack off; my hands lost feeling in the first few minutes of work and my feet were so numb that I kept tripping and stumbling over myself. This short experience of cold discomfort is nothing compared to the true story I recently read, In The Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides. This book details the unbelievable journey a group of men took to try to reach the North Pole. The year was 1879 and the popular belief at the time was that the North Pole actually was an open ocean with marine life, navigable waters, and lost civilizations. The theory was that an ice ring surrounded this open body of water and that a boat just had to get through this barrier to access the polar ocean and hence quickly navigate to the other end of the world. Scientists believed that their was an open ocean on the North Pole and not ice because of the constant seasonal sunlight, deep water salinity, magnetic prowess, etc. With this theory in mind, manifest destiny in full force, and the male desire to conquer, Lieutenant Commander George Washington DeLong lead a crew of 30 men aboard the USS Jeannette to the North Pole.

DeLong, through extensive research, thought that going past Alaska through the Bering Straight would be the easiest way to get to the North Pole ocean. All was going well with the voyage until it got stuck in the ice just north of Siberia (click here for map). The crew of 30 were stuck in that ice pack for 21 months!!! The ice pack was drifting to the northwest towards the North Pole but to the men it was a boring, miserable, extremely cold, and very dark period of time. Imagine how these men felt stuck in a small ship with minimal light (the arctic gets no light during the winter months) and extremely cold temperatures for over 638 days. Eventually, the ship broke free from the ice only to be recaptured by an ice pack that punctured its hull and caused it to sink. Now the men were left with minimal supplies and no easy way out of their cold predicament. The crew began to journey south towards Siberia in the hopes that they would find a native tribe that could take them in. The arduousness of this journey was so much that each day the men said that it was the hardest day’s labor they had ever experienced. Moving supplies over ragged ice meant that the process was slow, very cold, and very dangerous. The trek finally culminated with a last ditch effort to cross an open expanse of water with the Siberian coast in site. Three small boats set out in a gale force storm: one boat sank killing 6 men, the other two were separated and landed at different points on the coast. In the end, the boat with DeLong sent out two survivors to find help, they did, but the men who held back all died of starvation. The other boat that landed found a native tribe and were able to survive the indomitable conditions of Siberia (they did get back to America as soon as they could).

I highly recommend picking up this book and would say it is one of the top 5 books I have ever read. My short post is the tip of the iceberg in terms of explaining this truly remarkable journey. These men experienced so much pain and discomfort it makes me feel ridiculous when I complain about trivial things. Even though the crew didn’t reach the North Pole they did discover several islands and scientific information that would help future parties eventually reach the North Pole by land. Our desire to learn and discovery is one of the most defining traits of our sentience. In honor of these men, I implore you to seek out what our planet has to offer and rummage through all the corners of its being. If you bought a house you would know all of its nooks and crannies because of the innate desire of exploration. This earth, in its past and present self, is everyone’s house to explore. Let’s go!