Innocence and Experience
Recently I read a fascinating essay in The New York Times by a philosopher who had suffered what her doctor described as a “minor traumatic brain injury.” The upshot of her injury meant that she wasn’t allowed for at least three months to do any heavy lifting with her brain. Actually, she was supposed to avoid any lifting at all. The doctor told her that her brain needed complete rest: no reading, writing, or screen time whatsoever.
Her story was interesting to me for many reasons, and you may want to read it in its entirety: Megan Craig, “A Philosopher on Brain Rest,” NYT, June 25, 2019. But the part that interested me most about Dr. Craig’s essay was this. Although she is a philosopher, it became clear in her essay that there are vast assumptions in her “philosophy” she has simply taken-on as part of an ideology that reduces, simplifies, even stereotypes complex philosophical perspectives that it (her ideology) opposes.
Thus, as a self-described “contemporary” philosopher who rejects the “mind-body dualism” of Descartes, a dualism that she says exemplifies metaphysical, patriarchal, Western thinking, she has an especially hard time coming to terms with her new experience of brain injury that calls into question what it means for her to know herself.
As Dr Craig says in her essay: “[A] concussion has a way of changing one’s sense of balance between mind and body.* It’s one thing to be hit in the arm or the gut. It is an entirely different thing to be hit in the brain. Dualism is terrifying in part because the separation of mind and body implies the possibility of radical skepticism…” Well said.
What tops the scale of interesting and makes this essay fascinating to me is that her experience of “minor traumatic brain injury” (surely a label coined by someone who hasn’t been knocked over backwards by a kid on ice skate causing you to slam the back of their head on solid, unforgiving ice) has brought her almost precisely to the point from which Rene Descartes actually began his journey. This is both ironic, and really cool.
You see, Descartes constructed what we now call a “thought experiment” to try to figure out how we can know something. And to take this experiment to its foundational limit, he wanted to discover how we can know that we actually exist and aren’t just characters in a dream.
This may seem frivolous at first sight, but at the dawn of the Enlightenment, as philosophers were attempting to parse the difference between beliefs and knowledge, and science was trembling before the seemingly omnipotent ecclesiastical powers across Europe, humanity needed to be able to place the knowledge we gain from experiments and experience on solid ground. They needed, in fact, to clear the ground of the undergrowth of superstition and fuzzy thinking. They particularly needed to differentiate experiential knowledge from the doctrines of the church which sometimes rested on little more authority than a sort of “Because WE Said So Belief.”
Descartes asked himself a series of questions testing his own most basic assumptions, until at last he arrived at the awareness that the one thing he was sure of was that he was questioning everything. We often summarize and sometimes caricature Descartes’s insight with the phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” In fact, his process was more like this: “I may doubt everything, but of this one thing I am sure, I am doubting.” Thus his great maxim should probably read: “I doubt (or I question), therefore I am.”
Now, I’m not a Cartesian, nor the son of a Cartesian; nor am I a fan of Cartesian dualism or any sort of dualism. But here’s my point.
One of the most valuable things I ever learned was to fall in love with and to try to master the thought of great thinkers before you begin any sort of criticism of them. Therefore, even as a student, I would immerse myself in Descartes or Locke or Kant or Hegel (oh my, what a seducer of the mind that one is), and I would read and study them for week after week after week, following their experiences, imaginatively empathizing with their intellectual arguments, attempting to understand the world that brought them to rebel against certain things or to try certain things. Only after I was head-over-heels in love with a philosopher’s thought, would I allow myself to begin to test it against other perspectives until I arrived at a critical appreciation or an outright rejection of their thought.
This is about as far from an ideological adoption of one philosophy over another as I could get.
My basic reasoning was simple. Even the most minor philosophers we study are a lot smarter than I am. I haven’t earned the right to critique them until I have learned to appreciate them, and then have mastered their arguments. And nobody has the right simply to dismiss even the most minor of these thinkers out of hand. Rigorous, original thought, even if we ultimately disagree with it, deserves our respect.
To adopt or to reject a “philosophy” just because it is fashionable, or in order to gain acceptance to an in-group (and both of these ways are a plague upon modern academia) does not advance thinking at all. But to engage in thought thrust upon us by experience, as Megan Craig demonstrates in her wonderful essay, is the doorway to real philosophical discovery.
Her own discovery left her in a muddle with far more questions than answers, which is a great place to be. To question may not prove one’s existence, but it does prove one’s value as a thinker.