Naïve philosophaster: on method and privilege

In which I start counting my privileges and reflect on how I am trying to use them.

That’s correct, I did write “use [my privileges]”. This expression is questionable and relies on important implicit assumptions. In fact, one purpose of this post is to allow writing the follow-up, where I’ll unpack these assumptions and discuss them explicitly. My overarching aim is to explain why I think that privileges should be kept under control, but used, not eliminated. However, before tackling the core argument, I think I need to spend some time looking at my own circumstances.

The Cathedral of Learning. Intimidating and self-referential? Image by Thomas J. Grant (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A few years ago I wrote a self-describing blurb for my Twitter profile. The full text is:

Former (molecular) neurobiologist, now software developer. Science junkie, evidence seeker, naïve philosophaster, music lover.

With so little space at my disposal, it still surprises me how long this text lasted, and how comfortable I still am with it. It is ageing well. Most of it is factual, describes what I do, where I come from and what makes me tick. The odd element is in the title of this post: naïve philosophaster. This expression is my attempt to express the serendipitous method that I found myself following, which in turn screams of privilege. If find the circumstance interesting and problematic. I also think that it allows to form the basis of a wider set of ideas, giving me an excuse to pretend that what follows is not only about me, me, me[1].

My blessings.

I was born white, male, heterosexual, into a middle class, intellectual and caring family (if somewhat troubled). Financial worries were limited to the long-term: food, clothes and shelter were not a pressing or recurring concern. I arrived into this world as European, just in time to fit in the last generations where it was normal to end up being better-off than the respective parents. I could go through university without needing to work, and could therefore complete my studies in reasonable time while also cultivating extra-curricular interests. As a result, I have never been unemployed, not even for a day.

How lucky is that? Considering luck alone, I must be among the top 0.0001% individuals that have ever roamed the planet. That’s right, remember the rhetoric about the 1%? Forget it. I got it much, much better than that. The only thing that isn’t quite perfect about the situation I was born-in comes from a good dose of familiar trouble in my childhood. I was not a happy child, but luckily(!), I was not scarred for life. What the early trouble left me is some awareness of what trauma can do to people, no matter how privileged. I also learned that logic and rationality are never the main driver of human actions.

Overall, in the global scale, considering the history of humanity, virtually no-one had it better than me.

I have an extremely satisfying job, which allows me to put the bulk of my mental energies into something that is very clearly contributing to the common good. I am not rich in the 1% sense, not if the 1% is limited to the Western block, but I don’t need to worry about pennies either. That’s one of the ways in which I can use my rare set of privileges: I could perhaps find a better-paying job, but I would have to compromise the perceived utility of the job itself, so I choose not to even look. But is it enough? No, I don’t think so. The additional bit is implied by what I mean with “naïve philosophaster”.

The value of naïvety.

My natural inclinations are quite intellectual. I’m at home amongst abstractions, and when I’m facing some difficulty, my instinctive reaction is to sit down and think. Not having kids, I get to enjoy having some extra time, and when I’m lucky(!), I may even have some spare brainpower. It took me almost 40 years to realise that my lucubrations might be (with some luck!) somewhat valuable. By doing so I found myself facing the question: OK, so how should I invest my spare mental energies? I wanted something that wouldn’t drain me (the real job should remain my priority), but hopefully complement my professional persona. This blog is the result, and naïve philosophastry is how I do it.

Some of the “how” comes by deliberate choice, some of it from luck(!) or serendipity. If the question was: how should I spend the spare resources that I have? “Build on your strengths”, was my not entirely conscious answer. I’m good at grasping the big picture (AKA: I get quickly bored if I have to look at minute details!), I know something about biology, computers, neuro- and cognitive-science, I also have an interest in politics (in case you didn’t notice!). Given these “strengths”, it came natural to me to try to use them by thinking and writing. The hard part was to accept that my thinking, no matter how imperfect, needs to be made public, if (and only if) the hope is that it may be useful[2].

The serendipitous part is the method I have apparently settled-in. It goes like this: I find a problem that interests me. I allow and encourage myself to think and read about it in whichever way happens to be possible and relatively easy. Then I sit and write down my thoughts. This forces me to construct some kind of discourse which appears to be sufficiently coherent. If such coherence fails to materialise, I can supplement with some extra reading. However, at this stage I would normally stop whenever I’ll manage to put some order in my thoughts. After doing so, I publish the result here and/or in whichever medium appears to be suitable (mostly here!).

This solidifies my starting position, and comes with the important side effect that it hopefully allows some originality to slip in. At this stage, I can and usually do notice weak spots in my reasoning, I might also naturally grow an interest in points of view that appear to challenge my reasoning – with luck(!) I might even receive valuable criticism and feedback. This is where (hopefully) my naïvety starts decreasing. More reading happens, directed by what I perceive as gaps or weaknesses in my own position. I can then iterate: starting from a little less ignorance, see what subset of my original ideas still seem to make sense and repeat the process until boredom supervenes[3].

Why am I inflicting this onto my readers? Because what I am doing seems to work, at least in the sense that it is not guaranteed to be a waste of time[4]. Trouble is, once again, I can do what I do only because of luck. I’m a philosophaster, because I don’t do philosophy professionally. However, this circumstance allows me to do philosophy a little differently, and thus comes with the hope of doing it, in some very limited respect, better (ugh!).

Professional philosophers, like most/all academics, don’t normally have the privilege of indulging in their own idiosyncratic thought processes. In order to make a living, they ought to start by securing their BA, which mostly consists in eliminating every visible naïvety. They then have to get a PhD, which requires to build some original thoughts, but on the mandatory condition of demonstrating that such thoughts are based on a thorough understanding of the pre-existing ones. Publishing papers and books then also follows the same pattern: there simply isn’t any room for naïvety (a side effect is, I fear, some promotion of intellectual dishonesty: admitting that one’s reading/understanding doesn’t cover every possible aspect of a given topic is academically unacceptable – but, alas, some ignorance is, IMO, inevitable). I know that the official approach does make sense: it prevents people from producing the same old ideas (or mistakes) over and over again. However, it also creates new problems. To earn the right of being taken seriously, modern-day philosophers need to immerse themselves in pre-existing frameworks. They have to accept and build upon one or the other paradigm (in most cases). This inevitably has two undesirable consequences:

  1. Allows people to concentrate on underdeveloped corners of a given framework, providing a seemingly endless supply of  low-gain, low-risk routes to securing a career in the field.
  2. By promoting hyper-specialisation, current expectations also constrain and stifle the appearance of big-picture, or out-of-the-box, paradigm-changing new ideas.

In other words, I do think that professional philosophy is indeed disproportionately geared towards promoting the study of Chmess. Luckily(!), since I earn my money elsewhere, I have the possibility of playing the naïvety game, which neatly side-steps what I perceive as the most common pitfalls of professional philosophy.

This is not to say that naïvety is a virtue, it comes with obvious drawbacks – in fairness, my approach only makes sense in light of how it differs from the mainstream – it is somewhat parasitic. In terms of drawbacks, I am certainly maximising my chances of wasting time by re-producing unoriginal ideas or mistakes. I can afford this risk: if I have fun in the process, no real waste is involved. Secondary risk is wasting the time of my tiny readership: on this, I am selfishly happy to let you take your chances!
Moreover, I make my mistakes in public and I visibly refuse to tick most or all the official “seriousness” boxes. In fact, I am now advertising my refusal. By doing so, I am lowering my chances of being taken seriously. This may become a problem if I will stumble on an idea that is both valuable and new. Given the low probability of such eventuality, I guess I can afford leaving this problem unsolved, for now, even if I do harbour the worry that my current method is self-defeating, for sociological reasons.

Conclusion

I am lucky to a point that defies comprehension. Even in my attempt of using my luck in a productive way I end up exploiting my luck even more. Naïve philosophastry certainly isn’t the best or most parsimonious method around, however, it suits my situation, comes effortlessly to me and ensures I have fun along the way. At the same time, it allows to sidestep some of the major flaws of the mainstream method (in my perception). Thus, I exploit my privilege, by being a Naïve Philosophaster. What remains to be seen is whether I should acknowledge my self-serving biases, and do something radically different.
Instead of exploiting my privileges, shouldn’t I renounce them? It seems logical. My excuse for not doing so will come in the next post. Stay tuned, and please do feel free to have a go at me in the meantime.

Notes and Bibliography:

[1] Being about me, writing this post has been harder than usual. I want to thank some of my Twitter friends (Stuart Boardman, Paul Harland and Abeba Birhane) for their kind and useful pre-publication feedback, as well as for collectively providing the courage to click “Publish”.

[2] “Useful” is left underspecified on purpose. I don’t need to know exactly how my ideas might be useful. They may make someone look at their own beliefs in a new light, spark some debate, help a student with some coursework, inspire a new train of thoughts, expose a mistake, etcetera. In all cases, even the ones I can’t imagine, for an idea to be useful to anyone but me, it needs to be available outside my own head.

[3] Boredom is an involuntary heuristic system that (hopefully) signals diminishing returns. Once I stall and fail to detect the potential for significant progress, boredom automatically steps in, forcing me to move on. This is also where I think the process risks failing: I may and probably do fail to follow up; once I feel my ideas feel settled and well informed, I might lose interest before writing down the result of the whole charade.

[4] I do know that some of my posts here are (or have been) used in university courses, moreover, my blogging experience is helping me at work. Thus, I do have some reasons to believe that what I’m doing is not entirely wrong.

Bibliography

Dennett, D. C. (2006). Higher-order truths about chmess. Topoi, 25(1), 39-41.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Premises
4 comments on “Naïve philosophaster: on method and privilege
  1. Very interesting. This echos my own luck, privilege, philosophizing and methodology (see my updated blog post Education of a Autodidact) to the extent that I am tempted to draw tentative generalizations from a dataset of 2. But my experience is less academic and American.

    We seem to be on a precipice of a paradigm. I wonder if I would be exploring the nature of my privilege and the philosophical premises of science if politics had not put both of these issues (or as 2 sides of one paradigm?) in stark relief. Given my history I think I would exploring this anyway but our current politics on both sides of the Atlantic gives the questions you raise considerable import.

  2. […] like me to visit South Africa without asking “What am I doing with my privileges?” (see previous post). The scale of abject poverty would be overwhelming in itself, but in Cape Town it is paired with […]

  3. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Thanks RF,
    I’ve finally found the time to read your own, semi-parallel post. Interesting in return!
    Many parallels, but an equal number of divergences as well. Glad you found my own exploration interesting, took a long time (and some help) to find the required determination to click the “publish” button!

  4. […] know always surpasses what we do know. Finally, it’s the reason why I maintain this  blog: I write to test, clarify and improve my ideas – trying to be mindful of my own […]

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