Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Philosophy of Potatoes (the musings of an orthodox rebel)

"Beware of the man whose god is in the skies." -George Bernard Shaw

Philosophies of the world and worldly philosophies drive me insane. Whether it be the narrow-minded bigotry of scientism or the epistemological bottomless pit of post-modernism, I find them all equally vacuous and (perhaps what is worse) ugly. Of course, there is something awry about a philosophy that is aesthetically neutral (i.e., dull), but there is something incredibly insidious about any philosophy whose aesthetic principles create and encourage an outrageous and offensive ugliness to inflict upon others. Surrealism, with its "art," is a good example of this. When any philosophy makes horror and insanity the standards of aesthetic perfection, you can be sure that it is a divinity of hell.

This is not to discount the equally sinister quality inherent in a philosophy being vacuous. Any philosophy that (while perhaps logically coherent) finds no anchor points in the practical world of existential experience is worse than dead: it is a lie. A philosophy (being an ultimate view of things) is meant to be as practical as potatoes. It is not meant to be isolated abstract reasoning, but rather beliefs about the actual world that affect how you behave in and relate to that actual world. Any philosophy that exists in an isolated, abstracted bubble is deadly; it is of the worst kind of spiritualism (both eastern and western) that views the actual world as (at best) a distraction or (at worst) a cheat. If taken seriously, it creates the hell of solipsism, i.e., the hell of the isolated self. Of course, no one takes such philosophies seriously in the real world. That is the point: they are vacuous and therefore useless.

As a philosopher (which is just another way of saying, "As a human being"), I find that I cannot keep pace with the ridiculous academic gymnastics that passes for modern scholarship these days. I do believe that the lunacies of such men as Foucault and Derrida (and perhaps we could even add Nietzsche and Schopenhauer) are dying out, but it is a slow and messy death; like most empty doctrines, they die hard. Their cheerleaders (those faithful few) will continue to sing their praises while the disillusioned will look elsewhere. I am thankful that I was disillusioned with nonsense long before I every read the philosophers of nonsense, for as a Christian I am always incredulous towards madmen. There is something cowardly and lazy about any philosophy that gives in to despair or ignorance, cowardly and lazy in this way: they are completely impractical and thus of no use to living, breathing men and women of the actual world.

I do not understand how someone can live in the actual world (under the burning blue sky, walking on the tangled green grass) and buy into either extreme notion that human inquiry can figure out everything (the lunacy of scientism) or nothing (the lunacy of post-modernism). Real existence (with actual existential data) cries out in anger at such nonsense, and no philosophy summed up real existence better than the Christian philosophy when its much marginalized philosopher St. Paul said, "For we know in part and prophesy in part" (I. Cor. 13:9). Immediately with that statement we are confronted with two facts: we have knowledge, but it is incomplete. We can know but only partly. Here we avoid the pitfalls of both arrogance and despair; here we are confronted by both the joy that we can know and the humility that we are not all-knowing. We are given truth and mystery, reason and romance, security and adventure. Here, then, is a practical philosophy, probably the only practical philosophy left to men and women.

The Christian philosophy is practical on this point (and all points, if we had time to discuss them) because it speaks to the realities of real people: their desires and circumstances. If we seriously thought about it, we could only conclude that everyone wants to know something, but no one wants to know everything. We want to move forward with both confidence and excitement, with limitless open sky over our heads and limitless solid ground beneath our feet, a paradox only possible if we "know in part." Take away that truth, and mankind loses something precious. If we know everything, then there is no excitement; life and existence are a bore, a tale already told and memorized without the possibility of alteration or the freedom of the unexpected. It is a paralysis of predetermination: there is no movement because there is nowhere left to go. If, however, we know nothing, then there is no confidence; life and existence are a terror, a swirling shadow of meaningless and menacing variables that stalk in the perpetual night. It is a paralysis of chaos: there is no movement because there is no direction. Both of these philosophies of men are untenable and intolerable. They do not satisfy holistically; they leave something out, something of real existence, something whose absence brings the whole edifice crashing to the ground.

Perhaps it is the height of irony (and tragedy) that the majority of worldly philosophies are just no earthly good. They either give a man too much or too little, and in either case they take everything from him. Christianity (with its core doctrine of Incarnation) gives God to men, which is to say that it gives us everything, including the practical necessity of knowing "in part."

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010


  1. But...I like surrealism.

  2. You only like surrealism because it isn't your philosophy. I like deconstructionism, but only because it isn't my philosophy. Otherwise, we'd both be in despair.

  3. D:

    It has its moments, but I'd call them exceptions to the rule.

    Anon (I have an idea who you are):

    I understand. I'm not sure I agree, but I understand.