When I first came to philosophy, I viewed it as a battle. The philosopher was trying to make me believe something false, and it was my responsibility to stop him. I saw myself as a knight–locked in an epic battle with a dragon. Only one of us could walk away from this fight alive.
Fortunately, I was not sent into these battles unprepared. My philosophy classes gave me the tools I needed to emerge victorious. I had been armed with logic–the sword of truth–and the more dragons I slayed the more proficient I became in its use. I, like so many undergraduates, believed I was one of the chosen ones–engaged in dismantling the many-headed hydra of bad argument and unclear definitions. A single flick of my pen could send a famed philosopher to his knees, begging for mercy. But what place has mercy in the fight for truth?
So I defeated dragon after dragon, book after book, and each school vacation, I polished my sword, swore to destroy fallacies, and pledged to bring the light of logic back to the world. I was happy in my mission. I thought, perhaps, this was all there was.
Somehow I missed the giant, gleaming pile of gold.
By this time, I had become an excellent swordswoman. I could anticipate the philosopher’s every move and take advantage of his smallest misstep. But I was so focused on slaying the dragon, that I failed to notice my surroundings. I defeated my enemy and closed the book, leaving behind his treasure-filled cave.
I had become mesmerized by my own sword strokes, and I forgot that logic is only one tool in my arsenal. Yes, the arguments of many great philosophers are imperfect. Descartes’ ontology argument can be easily dismantled by a beginner. Well and good. Excellent swordplay. But if your next step is to close the cover, leave the cave, and dismiss the Meditations as a foolish book–then you’ve missed out on a valuable experience. Instead of learning anything or growing as a person, you’ll become more and more entrenched in a certain set of beliefs: worshipping logic, the way of the sword.
But there is another way. Before you strike, pause for just a moment and think–perhaps this book, for all its flaws, still has something to teach me. Perhaps there is a reason this book is still read, still discussed, and still studied all these centuries later. Perhaps that reason is not that every philosopher and thinker before you is a stupid idiot incapable of wielding a sword…
Engage in this sort of thinking, and you might begin to see little glimmers of treasure, even in the most frustratingly illogical arguments. Descartes paves the way for Einstein’s thought experiments. Schopenhauer realized that as embodied creature we might have a special sort of access to the material world. Derrida points out that the language we use to communicate with each other is an imperfect tool; what I mean may not be what you hear. If any of these insights seem obvious to you, consider the possibility that they are only obvious because these thinkers influenced our society. They changed the intellectual landscape. Maybe, just maybe, there remains something worthwhile in their books…
So, dear younger self, don’t just slay the dragon. After you’ve practiced your swordplay, stay and look over the gold he’s been hoarding. Take the best bits with you.
And maybe, just maybe, consider talking to the dragon before you slay him. Perhaps he could tell you which bits of treasure are cursed…
But that is a quest for another day.