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Why and How I Came to Study Philosophy

I don’t consider myself a philosopher in any proper sense. I am neither the modern academic scholar, nor the ancient sage of wisdom, but I do find myself engaged in that realm of questioning thought which raises itself up to the philosophical. Why? As an activity, it does not provide me with any monetary or material gain, nor does it provide me with social gains in popularity—except in strange places like the Internet, I suppose. It could be argued that I do use the thinking skills I have developed through my studies in my everyday life, and while it is true that I think with a lot more consideration for my personal decisions on information, I can’t say I find myself being much more effective in my everyday life since most of it has to do with physical and memory skills.

First and foremost, I engage in philosophical inquiry because I want to know the Truth. I don’t care for opinions, and I don’t care for temporary it-seems-like-truth-but-perhaps-it’s-not kind of truth; no, I want to know THE Truth. Whatever it may be, however painfully disappointing it may be, there is a satisfaction I find in the attaining of truth that draws me like a bee to a flower.

In my past, the truth went from “Because it is” when I was a child to “Because of science, duh!” when I was a teen to “I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just necessary castles in the sky” in my early twenties to “Well, it seems we can’t know it intellectually at least” to “Wow. How about that conceptual necessity?” I’m no stranger to changing views, but despite all the changes, it feels like fundamentally it’s stayed the same and every change was just one further iteration of just what it is that I hold truth to be: certainty. As a child, certainty was feeling; as a, teen certainty was the practical reality of the “scientific method;” in my early twenties, certainty became the certainty of inescapable dogmatism; a couple years later, it became the certainty of skepticism of intellectual knowledge; and now, certainty is the certainty of immanent thought. In that respect, it seems to never change, but as an inspired Hegelian, I can’t accept that there has been no difference, for form and content aren’t separate.

Now why did I want to know the truth in my early days? Well, like it did to Socrates, it just seemed obvious to me that truth was obviously good! Good for what? I don’t know, but if lying was bad on all accounts, then telling truth was good as far as basic thinking went. Over time, the reason changed, and past my 21st year, around the time I read Marx, my whole view on the good of truth, and truth itself, changed to a very pragmatic view for a while. I no longer cared about detached truth in itself—I could not believe in it any longer given my increasing skepticism and belief in scientific functionalism. I cared about truth that had direct tangible results; it was practical efficacy which was the proof of certainty. It was only in these tangible results and productive activities that were truth, and any theoretical considerations in between were merely pragmatically necessary empirical unknowns filling the gap.

Truth of other things aside, however, my directly personal dimension comes into my love of philosophy as well. I grew up going to and taking part in my mother’s Protestant church, and while I never was a strong believer, I internalized a strong sense of basic Christian morality, particularly not lying—when it matters—and accepting that you are responsible for your fate after death. With that, I became very, very, preoccupied with the questions of what the righteous or good life is, what I should do, and what kind of person I should be. While external considerations and scientific understanding dominated my striving and outlook most of the time, the questions of my inner world were always present despite my lack of definite understanding of what might answer them.

Not only did a strong Christian value of truth and responsibility shape me, but so did the liberal notions that we should be open-minded, understanding of others, critical of claims, and to be comfortable with being our selves insofar as what we are is not actively detrimental to others. I took seriously the idea that I should be me, that I should not want to be anyone else, and that despite my personal problems at the very least I could live as a truth to myself. The full weight of these notions, however, did not bear on me heavily until my later teen years.

Once in college, I ended up taking a critical thinking class—it was basic classical logic—out of need to fill in a requirement my second year. While I did not take the class very seriously at first—it seemed too easy—there came a point near the end of the class where one of the assigned essay topics was the question of what rights we had. Somehow it had never occurred to me that this concept of rights was something I did not really understand, and yet in contemplating the topic it fully struck me that this was the case. I was bothered by this and excited all at once. Here was a moment of real insight I had never experienced before, for the first time in what seemed my entire life I was learning something fundamentally new. I researched and learned about positive and negative rights, I learned about natural and constructivist theories of right, et cetera. I ended up skipping class for two weeks and turning the essay in late because I was so wrapped up in the issue. Never had I felt such a worry about a thought. I engaged in a frantic search for an answer to what once seemed like such a simple question. If something so ordinary as ‘rights,’ which we speak of so easily in our everyday lives, was truly unknown to me, what else was I not aware of not truly knowing? The question began a process within me that, so it happens, coincided with a shift in thinking I was already beginning to make in the realm of questions concerning science.

The next semester, I decided to take the plunge into my first philosophy course—an intro to metaphysics and epistemology. While I found myself interested and thinking once more, I usually came to fuzzy conclusions with which I was utterly unsatisfied. In my essays, I made clear my inner turmoil in seeing the rationality and partial truth to both sides, feeling a conviction that some third answer must exist which unified them. Not until the end of the semester, on the question of free will and determinism, did the flash of inspiration and insight of genuine speculative thinking hit me in full again. In that question, I felt that I grasped the question and issue itself for myself for the first time, not merely as a question presented through the essays I read. I felt a supreme confidence that, unlike my classmates, I grasped at the true root of the question—one which was not about determinism or indeterminism—and having nothing to do with quantum mechanics as my more scientific classmates thought. In both libertarianism and determinism, there was an inherent incompatibilism by conception, both spoke of something in principle inconceivable in any coherent manner. I saw that the question of free will was one of self-determination (my own term, none to do with Hegel at the time since I had not even heard of him). Some form of compatibilism had to be the case in order for the question to even be intelligible (not a word I even knew back them). No compatibalist account I read, however, developed an answer that satisfied. From the question of free will, there cascaded a whole slew of changes to the categories which structured my comprehension.

As I continued to think over the next couple years over issues that came up in other philosophy courses I found myself considering the questions in new ways beyond what any assigned texts or lectures implied. I became interested in Marx, in process philosophies, in Wittgenstein, in Kant’s noumenal/phenomenal divide, in philosophy of science, and in the increasing unintelligibility of physical theories and their assumptions. I turned away from interest in ethics and became convinced of the primacy of the metaphysical as a necessary ground that required working out before the questions of ethics could be answered. I became more and more interested and convinced in the necessity of a coherent and systematic framework despite my increasing doubts in the possibility of non-dogmatic philosophy. Eventually I became obsessed with the notion that logic, metaphysics, and ethics had an intimate connection which collapsed them into one, and as such I was also drawn towards Spinoza and Aristotle where I found such a relation between what is and what should be.

Under the influence of Marx and Wittgenstein’s therapeutic philosophy, I shifted my conceptions of science towards pragmatic instrumentalism and became suspicious of empirical evidence for claims of the metaphysical due to my reading of Kuhn and Collingwood. The realization that science had metaphysical presuppositions of its own made me skeptical of the direction of knowledge. From then on, I was skeptical of epistemology as a foundational project. Kant, whom I had disdained in ethics, became a seasonal love I encountered on the outskirts of my academic article readings, and through the influence of modern considerations of the science of the brain, I made a link to the categories of the mind and their construction of the world. His transcendental idealism melded even better with my mystical speculations the further I engaged with Buddhist and Advaita Vedanta thought. Though there was an increasingly rational structuring to my worldview and growing system, there nonetheless remained my awareness that I was just as trapped building castles in the sky as others. At the time, however, rather than give into skeptical defeatism, I was more than happy to engage speculation for my own satisfaction in seeing how far I could expand my rationalist system.

With all these new notions, an acute sense of urgency came to my search for truth. No longer was I just interested in truth just for its own sake, or for the sake of instrumental usage, but for my sake. As my knowledge increased, and I reflected on myself as a person, the issues of my self came into clearer focus. I wanted to be true to myself and to be an individual that was who they are of their own choosing, I was determined to be free insofar as I could self-determine, but I could not be such if I did not grasp Truth and choose it for myself. I could no longer simply take it from someone else, for it would be allowing others to determine who I was. Reason and knowledge became for me a way to achieve freedom inasmuch as freedom is possible, but this freedom was for no purpose but to grasp Truth and embody it as an act of my own choosing. To know what is, I thought, would naturally reveal what should be, yet it would leave it up to me to actualize it.

Through life circumstances and their effect on my reflective moods, I began to reconceptualize my purely rational schemes with an injection of life experience and inspired mystical speculations. I put my systematic desire to work, bringing together in my mental scheme everything and anything which could be subsumed into the general metaphysical categories which informed my worldview. Science, religion, the humanities, social concerns, existential experience, and monistic mysticism melded together in what seemed like a seamless web. And then…I finally discovered Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel was, and still is, a colossus who casts a shadow over everything. In Hegel, I found the greatest challenge and also my greatest personal ‘spiritual’ achievements. Necessity transformed once more—a necessity which could guarantee itself in its content beyond analytic form. While my first encounters were baffling and I was incapable of grasping beyond superficial depths, I felt Hegel promised something that, though I was unable to yet see, was beyond what anyone else promised. Silly as it may seem, I accepted the challenge and since then have dared to do all I can to see the course through and attain Hegel’s promised Absolute Knowing. I have not forgotten all of those thinkers I have gone through. Indeed, through Hegel, I have come to have an even greater appreciation for the heights of their thoughts and how amazing they were, not just in their own times but also in their essence.

Philosophy is now so intertwined with who I am that I cannot imagine being what I should be without it. I continue to engage philosophy not for purely practical instrumental reasons, neither for argument nor for job purposes, but for the satisfaction of knowing. Perhaps its a residual of the indoctrination and belief in the inherent righteousness of truth, or perhaps it’s because Hegel is right about the satisfaction of knowing being the mind’s certainty found and confirmed in its object (he has a way of making wonderful things seem unexciting and technical).

Whatever the reason, Truth is what I want from philosophy, and Truth is in some way what I have found every step of the way despite so far moving on from all positions I’ve held. Luckily for me, Truth happens to include everything I had prior wanted at every point: Truth is freedom; it is knowledge and the power it enables to transform; it is the good which is good in itself. Science’s aims of knowing what is and ethics’ aim to know what should be are, for now, happily united.

An anecdote on the myth that Hegel is impossible without background.

One of the most annoying points I encounter repeatedly when it comes to engaging Hegel for a newcomer is the repetition that Hegel is very, VERY, difficult. So difficult, in fact, that if you have not had at least four years of your life dealing with learning at least the continental movement from Hume to Kant to Fichte to Schelling to… ever increasing background qualifications, you have no hope in properly understanding anything Hegel has to say. That’s not even counting the difficulty of learning Hegel’s terminology itself and the obscure logic of dialectics. So… just hold on until you’ve made it through undergrad, there is no shame in admitting that Hegel is too hard for you.

This is from personal anecdote, but I find that in my experience the difficulty of Hegel is vastly overplayed. Yes, it is true that you will miss an immense amount of subtlety in the Phenomenology of Spirit and the later works’ arguments and the texts’ conversation with the philosophies of Hegel’s past and present, but just because one misses subtlety does not mean one is left with an unintelligible experience in which nothing great is learned. As Hegel himself says in the Phenomenology, to paraphrase: to demand that we know before we know is just a bit silly. To think that making mistakes is bad and invalidates any insights you may gain by misunderstanding is likewise silly. Depending on who you ask, some Hegelians claim that others have made quite a name for themselves due to their misreadings and the results thereof (Kojeve, anyone?).

When I began to read Hegel directly my only background in studying philosophy formally was virtually at the level of a summary text of the history of western philosophy covering snippets in the typical analytic fashion, I had just gotten past the philosophy 101 level classes. Most of the actual development in thought which led me to Hegel came from my own private philosophical readings that were for the most part utterly unrelated to the readings in my philosophy classes.

As I had been going through basic philosophy classes I had read Marx’s Capital Vol.1 as a challenge to engage with unpopular ideas and see their merits and failures for myself. I found Marx quite clear, and since I had at the time already arrived (due to quantum mechanics pop science) at process metaphysics speculations, I found Marx’s emphasis on processes and developments a welcome change from the philosophies I had encountered in my classes. It is through Marx that I encountered Hegel, and through random snippets of Hegel I truly encountered Kant as an epistemologist and ontologist, something far more fascinating to me than his ethics (at the time). In my attempt to understand Marx rigorously and philosophically I read many summary accounts of the silly idealism of Hegel, accounts which warned that it was an utter waste of time to engage with for someone focused on more practical matters of social existence, but over the couple of years I focused on comprehending Marxism one problem arose constantly: dialectics. It seemed like no one at all was capable of making intelligible this mysterious logic which was used by both Marx and Hegel, and which many claimed was the backbone to everything in their systems. Many of the accounts of it were so vague as to be useless, and I must admit that for some time I myself parroted these vague notions which in retrospect were nothing but word salad. In eventual frustration with the failure of Marxists and Marx himself in making intelligible what seemed most important, the logic which justified the argument’s development and validity in Capital, I finally decided to read about Hegel from the point of view of Hegelians. While I had been trying to penetrate the depths of Marxism I had quite a lot of times read snippets of Hegel, and I liked what I had encountered, so it wasn’t that big of a change for me.

When I finally began reading the Phenomenology of Spirit I did so without any guide. I had read a few overview articles, and I read Findlay’s introduction to the Miller translation, but they were mostly unintelligible and of no help. However, once I began the famous Preface I had moments of experiencing the sudden flashes of insight which reading Capital had first dazzled me with. Despite the difficulty and denseness of the Preface, and of not seeing how the discussions going on were related, Hegel made points at many moments which were epiphanies for me. I did not at the time understand the meaning of “dialectical”, Spirit, the Concept, the Idea, etc., and Hegel did not offer definitions, yet I also noticed they were not so unintelligible or even necessary for grasping the general gist of what went on. The unique idealist terminology remained unclear to me for the good part of half a year, yet my desire to make sense of Hegel compelled me to think these terms were not what most accounts had led me to believe. Hegel struck me as too intelligent to be so foolish as to think all of reality was mental in a Berkelyan or in a (simplistic) Platonic sense. What Hegel seemed to refer to in these terms, the Concept, the Idea, etc. seemed very different to anything I had ever known by them, yet I could not at the time understand them.

In reading the first section of the Phenomenology, Consciousness, I made my first major grasps of what Hegel was doing. This section’s three chapters made apparent to me that whatever Hegel was doing in the Phenomenology it seemed to have to do with meta-epistemology. I took this point and began searching for secondary literature on it, and here I encountered Westphal’s reading of Hegel. In attempting to understand the meta-epistemological view dialectics began to take the form of a process of investigation that had something to do with critiquing the inner coherence of conceptual schemes such as epistemology and ontology. The second insight I gained from reading Hegel directly was the point that epistemology and ontology were not distinct beginning standpoints, but two standpoints that each assumed the other and always came together. An epistemology assumes an ontology, and ontology assumes an epistemology.

At the door of the Master/Slave dialectic, however, I gave up on the Phenomenology. It wasn’t because I found it boring, or that it was too hard. I had made it through the third chapter, the infamous Force and the Understanding, and felt I had understood at least the general form of the argument if not the details, yet I stopped because I found reading Hegel too exciting. I wanted to talk about the ideas I discovered in the text with someone, to discuss interpretations, and I was frustrated by the lack of anyone else to engage the topic with in a timely and lively manner. My reading of the Phenomenology being indefinitely postponed, however, did not end my study of Hegel in general.

These two first insights gained from directly reading the Phenomenology ended up providing my entry path towards grasping Hegel more broadly. As I read more on those topics I began to find papers which led me further to new connections. From meta-epistemology and further overviews of the Phenomenology and Hegel’s system as a whole I began to think of Hegel as a meta-philosopher due to his overview of what seemed like all general points of view on topics, and by this point I had settled into the comprehension that whatever dialectics was it was something that didn’t have a general form and had more to do with a critique of inner coherence of concepts and thought structures. Searching for meta-philosophical readings of Hegel led me to the work of James Kreines, whose articles turned my focus away from the Phenomenology towards the Science of Logic. I had known the connection of the Science of Logic‘s concepts to ontology, but Kreines’ work led to a greater interest in the Logic‘s role and function in Hegel’s system as a whole. The connection between logic as such and the world, a notion I had already held as necessary for philosophizing for some years, became far more interesting and central. I read more on this, but without touching the Logic itself my understanding was limited to abstract papers and making general connections with little else. Where I had gaps I would study backwards to get at least the bare arguments necessary to understand a point, and often I read beyond what I had to.

I have continued to read Hegel (some Science of Logic, some Enclyclopedia), and most of what has kept me from a complete study of any of the works has been the overwhelming excitement they cause, and my own learning-by-explaining style. I’ve found that I think better and pay far closer attention when I read with the aim of discussing and attempting to clarify and explain what I read to someone else. I may not be a very wide or deep reader of philosophy or even Hegel, still, I can understand most Hegelese I encounter these days, especially the beginning developments of the particular sciences that are built up. When I can open up a work by Hegel and find myself following a conceptual development once I have situated myself in the context of the discussion… that’s quite something for someone who lacks the training of 4 years of Descartes to Schelling.