Bridget Groff of Houston, TX sends us this very nice letter about her experience with PEL:
Dear Partially Examined Life,
I am 20 years old. I am a female. I am not very large in stature and my face can perhaps only be described as cherubic. I’m a philosophy major.
I attend a (very) small, Catholic liberal arts college in Houston, Texas. I was raised Catholic and was fortunate enough to receive a Catholic education for my entire life; however, by the time I entered college, I was experiencing what a priest once told me was an "adolescent slump.” Like many teenagers, I was anxious, a little rebellious, and resentful of my Catholic education because, “they’re just, like, brainwashing us, man.” At age 16, I first read Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I can’t remember what compelled me to read it, but I think it was a mixture of teenage angst and an urge to fill some kind of spiritual void. “God is dead”? I could feel the edginess seeping into my marrow already. Little did I know, I was cultivating a dangerous bias. My introduction to philosophy baptized me in a pseudo-enlightened, nihilistic bath of misinformation. I was under the false impression that philosophy stands completely antithetical to theology, and that the sole purposes of philosophy are to disprove faith and kill God.
Once again, I developed a false understanding of what philosophy is supposed to be. I painted in my head a picture of old men in seersucker suits, smoking cigarettes in a hermetical chamber of mahogany.
This changed when I got to college. As a part of its mandatory curriculum, my university requires its undergraduates to take three theology and three philosophy courses. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to three more years of theology classes, and I already thought I had a good grasp on philosophy. Further, at a Catholic university with an entire program dedicated to Thomistic philosophy, I found that most philosophy courses were taught with a slight (sometimes not so slight) Thomistic edge. This bothered me at first, but I soon became enamored by logical proofs for the existence of God. I was fascinated by the metaphysical implications of a human soul. I soon realized that theology and philosophy are, on a certain level, inseparable. What was once a vain interest in philosophy turned into an incredible sense of purpose; I felt like I had found some secret key to knowing God. Slowly but surely, I found myself pulled back into what I’m willing to call a true faith. What sparked this return to Catholicism was not an Earth-shattering conversion experience. It wasn’t God’s voice in my ear or a cold-sweat dream of the beatific vision. It was a logical, argumentative, and systematic process that ultimately led me to decide that God is not dead, after all.
As I continued to pursue philosophy, however, I was distressed to learn that contemporary philosophers largely ignore the notion of God, and that theology has no place in most logical argumentation. I felt completely adrift in my Analytical Philosophy class, and I couldn’t fall back on my Thomistic training. I became doubtful, frightened, and intimidated by philosophy. Once again, I developed a false understanding of what philosophy is supposed to be. I painted in my head a picture of old men in seersucker suits, smoking cigarettes in a hermetical chamber of mahogany. I knock on the heavy wooden door and whisper, “fidelio.” They let me in, offer me coffee and a cigarette, but, as soon as I open my mouth, they realize I’m not one of them. The encounter doesn’t end in a human sacrifice, but they call me a Thomist and I guess that’s bad enough.
It was for this very reason that I was attracted to The Partially Examined Life. PEL talks about philosophy like I’d never heard before. To quote Seth Paskin on Quine's Two Dogmas of Empiricism, “Can we… talk about that for a second? Who… who cares? Who gives a shit how many entities there are?” Philosophy no longer wore a seersucker suit but a tee-shirt and Levi's. Yet, there was still the problem of God! I found nothing comforting in the Frege-Geach problem or Russell’s theory of Definite Descriptions. I found them fascinating, yes, but they were unrelated to the very reason that brought me to philosophy in the first place. Until, on one particularly bad day, driving home in the disgusting Houston traffic, I listened to Episode 73 of PEL, Why Do Philosophy? I was moved by Mark’s story of how some strange sense of faith motivated him to pursue philosophy later in life. I was galvanized by, as Mark puts it, “a sense of mission, that there really is something that we’re supposed to be doing.” I decided that my newly restored belief in God and my interest in philosophy do not have to be at odds with each other. I realized that I am not alone in this pursuit of “something bigger,” and I can find truth in both Wittgenstein’s picture theory and Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God, though perhaps to a lesser degree in the former, (does making a philosophy joke mean that I’m “in”?).
PEL has taught me that philosophy does not have to be daunting, it is not limited to unsmiling old men, and that to study philosophy is not to abandon my innermost convictions. I would like to thank The Partially Examined Life for cultivating my interest in philosophy when I thought I was doomed, and for proving that I, too, can be good enough. I hope to one day do philosophy for a living, though another day I might think better of it.
Have something to share? Send us a letter to the editor at email@example.com.
I’m an unsmiling old man myself, although not a philosopher.
Is there something sinful or immoral about not smiling? Being old isn’t such a fun thing, as you’ll learn some day if you live long enough. I’ve always believed that it’s preferible to be authentically unsmiling than to smile falsely. That can be debated of course, with or without a smile.
In any case, I wish you luck, seriously, without a smile.
Contemporary philosophy ignores Thomism the way astronomy ignores the Zodiac and the way biology ignores William Paley: at best, a bundle of gut intuitions lacking cognitive content, wherever it has not been decisively disconfirmed by observation.
“PEL has taught me that… to study philosophy is not to abandon my innermost convictions.”
Then someone has been mistaught. If people think doing philosophy means creating a “safe space” for shrouding their unexamined prejudices in a cocoon of rationalizations, our culture is well and truly screwed, and we can look forward to 8 more years of racist cheeto-men running the country instead of 4.
It isn’t true that contemporary philosophy ignores Thomism. Just look at Anscombe and MacIntyre, along with their myriad progeny. Just look at contemporary Just War Theory. Just look at Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Christopher Frederick says
Without due respect, don’t conflate the election of Trump with earnest philosophical and/or theological pursuits. Furthermore, philosophy is not science, period. And “Scientism” is an intellectually dishonest stance toward the world.
(Just so you know, I count myself as an atheist.)
“Without due respect, don’t conflate the election of Trump with earnest philosophical and/or theological pursuits.”
For those who missed it, my entire point is that we are currently enduring the apotheosis of an anti-philosophical, anti-skeptical, anti-freethinking, anti-intellectual culture. I am pointing out that the letter writer’s entitled dogmatism is simply on more token of this type. (For present purposes, I will refrain from surveying any historical connections between dogmatism and “theological pursuits”.)
I don’t know who here has said that philosophy is science, but if I meet any self-identified Scientismists today I’ll be sure to pass along to them your opinion of their moral character.
I did, however, mention that some aspects of the A/T worldview have been decisively disconfirmed by observation, to the extent that are cognizable at all as having content. Or, as with global warming, is NASA the victim of another colossal Chinese con, and the planets really are pushed in perfect circles around the earth by angels?
Christopher Frederick says
An apotheosis of anti this and and anti that is a bit of hyperbole, don’t you think? And you brought science into the discussion with your anology by equating a branch of metaphysics, or a metaphysical view, with astrology and its conflict with astronomy specifically and physics generally. The young woman who wrote this letter is just beginning a hopefully lifelong exploration of deep philosophical thinking. It seems to me that she is quite open to a reassessing of her positions as time goes by and new evidence is considered…
That letter from Brigette really resonates with me. Brought up in a decidedly post-religious household, discovered an early interest in Eastern philosophy and followed that through undergrad and postgrad studies. These have had no vocational applicability, which in some ways is a cause for regret; but on the other hand, I now feel something very much like that famous T S Elliot quote that says ‘we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. In other words, through it I have discovered something like a truly philosophical and spiritual appreciation of life. And that is indeed something greater.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Just to weigh in since Bridget quotes me: I now feel most definitely that the sense that “there’s something we’re supposed to be doing” is a mistake borne of early life religious indoctrination and a culture that still uses such metaphors: It’s not that life has no meaning, it’s that ‘the meaning of life” is a phrase that implies a metaphysics that I think to be fictional. …Not that one can’t use existentialism to try to reclaim the term as a useful way of interpreting experience. But I’m happy that we’re no longer putting out a podcast that is actively hostile to religion or makes people feel uncomfortable just because they don’t agree with me on this.
Wayne Schroeder says
My sense of “there’s something we’re supposed to be doing” is more a derivative of low self esteem trying to be good enough, rather than just a religious epiphenomenon, and dogmatic parenting causes this reaction, or counter-reaction whether religious or otherwise. The antithesis is genuine valuation as insisted on by Nietzsche: becoming and being someone.
As an aside to your Nietzsche point. I actually read Thus Spake Zarathustra for the first time in a pretty pro-Christian religion class. There’s actually a movement within Christianity that takes critics like Neizsche quite seriously and uses them to rethink what we mean by God and religion. That is a common way to approach the issue is to see Nieztzsche and company as clearing the debris caused by figures unifying a Greek absolutist conception of God with the more theistic conception of God in Biblical narrative. The “God is dead” part is the more Platonic/Hegelian type of God who ought be killed.
Not saying most people would agree of course. New Atheists are much better at attacking the theistic aspect of God rather than the more deistic aspect where God is the ground of Being. (Typically due to just being ignorant of the literature especially the arguments that go back to the Greeks)
Wayne Schroeder says
Nice Bridget–for a thoroughgoing philosophical entanglement with thomistic thinking in a philosophical context see John Caputo: http://trippfuller.com/Caputo/