What I Learned in Philosophy 101

--image by -l.i.l.l.i.a.n- on Flickr

–image by -l.i.l.l.i.a.n- on Flickr

I have to procrastinate for two weeks before writing about Philosophy 101. Today is the day, though. No putting it off any longer.

Here’s what I remember from that class 35 years ago:

  • Socrates: Knowledge is the only good; ignorance is the only evil. In the first week of philosophy class, I decide I will put in three hours of study outside of class for every hour in. That’s what is required at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio in 1962. Also because I am ignorant, and I do mean to learn. I may have been the smartest person in high school, but not in college.
  • Plato: Everything that exists is an imperfect copy of a perfect form outside our universe. “No, Plato doesn’t mean like on Mars,” says the professor, being good natured about the question.That evening at my dorm-room desk I apply Plato’s concept to myself. Outside the universe could mean heaven. If so, some perfect original me exists there. Am I really an angel somewhere up in the sky, and simultaneously a less-than-angelic copy down here on earth? This thought makes me feel quite imperfect.
  • Aristotle: “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.” Here are two other examples of Aristotelian deductive reasoning: Ignorance is the only evil; I am ignorant; therefore, I am evil. Or, everything we know is an imperfect copy of a perfect form. I am part of everything we know. Therefore, I am an imperfect copy. Also, I’m now depressed.
  • Descartes (the next philosopher I remember much about): The mind is not part of the physical universe. The body is part of the physical universe. The mind and the body get together through the brain. Through the brain, I know that I exist. In Descartes’ words: “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think; therefore I am.)I remember the question I asked the professor: “If the mind is not part of the physical universe, is it a perfect form, per Plato?” Descartes doesn’t say, and neither does my professor. So I must make up my own mind. Let’s see: The mind is not part of the physical universe but may be a perfect form—in which case the mind does not exist in any way that has meaning to imperfect me. The body is part of the physical universe, but the body can’t think, so if thinking is a requisite to existence, then the body doesn’t exist. Oh, wait, the brain. Is that the part of me that’s ignorant, imperfect, depressed? The instructor is now wandering back and forth in front of the class expounding on mind, body and brain, and I have no idea what he is talking about. I’m really confused.

And so it went when I was 19 and being introduced to the world’s great thinkers. Each of the perhaps 30 thinkers we studied during the first weeks of class had important things to say, and each evening, after earnestly pondering what they said, I felt as though I only had less important things to say.

It wasn’t too distressing, though, since while I did try to give each one of those big ideas some thought, I mostly just memorized them. They didn’t have much to do with my exciting life. Like when my friend and I ran three miles back to the dorm after gawking at Charlton Heston’s sunburned muscles in “El Cid”—and made it back to the dorm one minute before curfew. Or the weeks I proudly practiced what my dance instructor called “hook sit” until I could sit down and put the soles of my feet together just in front of me and put my knees on the floor to either side of my feet. Or the time I fell in love with the first famous poet I ever saw, on an evening he spent reading his work to all us giggling girls. Now, if he had looked at me just once… instead of that blond in front of me with the diamond stud earrings and a suntan.

Three hours out of class for every hour in. I do want to emphasize this schedule since I think it doesn’t exist anymore, except maybe at Harvard or Yale, and then only if your Daddy isn’t rich. I did spend those three hours, and I did the best I could with big ideas. My memorization was so good, in fact, that when it came time for philosophy semifinals, I didn’t even consider my ignorance, imperfection, depression or confusion. My pen seemed to flit on its own from answer to answer, leaving my mind, body and brain out of it.

The next day, the professor was late to class. By the time all 30-or-so of us freshmen had seated ourselves, he still wasn’t there. This had never happened before. Everybody looked at everybody else. Nobody wanted to be the first one to leave.

Suddenly, the door to the auditorium banged open. The professor arrived like a hurricane. He blew up to the head of the class, in mid stride sweeping a chair along with him and then depositing it at the front of the room. He leaned over and patted the seat fondly. “Today,” he said, now upright again, “we begin the second half of your introduction to knowledge.” Here he paused, raised one eyebrow, and looked at each of us solemnly. “So,” he continued, “what I want to know is this: How do you know this is a chair?”

( … ! )

“Class dismissed.”

As we all fumbled confusedly about for books and book packs, he added, “Write a paper about it. Turn it in on Thursday.”

I felt dislocated. It had never occurred to me to question whether a chair was real or the proverbial figment. I felt as though I had sat down somewhere that wasn’t on a chair. Like my chair was over there and I was nowhere. What made it intolerable was that I knew that what was true—or not true—about the chair was also true—or false—about my desk, the paper I was supposed to turn in, my memory and perhaps even my philosophy.

That night late, after hours of bumbling around amid class notes and books, I wrote a paper that reviewed 10 or so philosophical stances that might apply, refuted them all with what I hoped were cogent arguments, and concluded that the brown wooden thing with a seat and a back and rungs was a chair because I could sit in it and because I had to call it something. To my amazement, the professor gave me an A on the paper. The only thing I missed, he noted, was the title of the philosophy I had described: pragmatism.

Thirty or forty more philosophers after that, with no grade lower than an A minus behind me, I still didn’t know how I really knew it was a chair. To this day, if I think about how I know what I know, I feel that dislocation. I’ve felt it ever since then, and that’s probably why this chapter in my memoirs has taken so long to write.

But you know what? So what? All those old dead thinkers did was think. Meanwhile, here I am, old but alive, planning to stop typing at the end of this sentence and go out to sit in my CHAIR ( …!) on the balcony, in the sunshine, and savor a sweet iced tea.

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