Friday, 17 April 2009

can I be a philosopher?

Got some deep stuff for you today. My daughter Imo was excited by a conundrum in her philosophy text (the stuff they are studying in high school these days -- what happened to y=mx+b and Shall I compare thee to a summer's day and responsible government? That was knowledge you could use!). The conundrum goes something like this: If a ship rots all the way through, so the owner has to replace first one rib and then another, and then the outer planks, and then the keel and masts - has to replace every single piece of the ship, in short - IS IT THE SAME SHIP?
Wow! I said when Imo finished, her face glowing with excitement.
I know, eh, she said.
I am delighted that she is excited by her schoolwork (in my day we drooled with boredom over responsible government). But my wow had to do with philosophy as a discipline. What a wankfest! I guess we all ponder stuff aimlesly, but these guys get paid for it. I was envious.
Can I be a philosopher? Let me try. Here's one that came to me by email. My friend Susie was invited to a joint birthday party -- a good friend of hers was celebrating along with someone Susie does not particularly like. Buying the gift for Barb, she writes, was a genuinely inauthentic experience, adding (for she too is a closet philosopher) I wonder if that is even possible?
OK, then. The word authentic describes actions that engage us, actions in which our self is present. Life or death stuff would be totally authentic (The prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully, as Dr Johnson observes). We are not always wholly engaged, but most of what we do retains some aspects of authenticity. I think of myself as reading authentically -- it is a large part of who I am. But not every book engages me. Talking to my kids is something I enjoy hugely most of the time, but, as they will attest, there are plenty of moments (Dad! Dad! Wake up!) when my attention strays. More of those as I age. A movie might engage me strongly at the beginning and lose me towards the end. (Actually, this happens a lot.)
So we are seldom completely authentic. But can we ever act in a genuinely inauthentic way?
I pictured Susie poring over gifts, thinking: Would Barb like a scarf? A bowl? A puppy? A subscription to Scientific American? An artificial limb? I don't know and I truly do not care. That sounds totally inauthentic -- but is it?
(No, she did not get Barb an artificial limb. I just thought that would make a better picture than a puppy.)

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