Early in Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger asserts that philosophy is bound up with the "extra-ordinary." This compels me to be clearer about how I conceive philosophy. In the past few days I said that I have to more "properly understand how my smaller conception of philosophy stands in the shadow of Heidegger's thinking," and 6 months ago I said I'm partial to a "quieter notion of philosophy, where significant moral change depends on an appreciation of being." It is well past time to start outlining what I believe to be true about philosophy at length, and this is an opportune moment. "Quieter" and "smaller" can only be placeholders for so long before they recede into invisibility.
Heidegger's talk of philosophy's engagement with the "extra-ordinary" is not mere provocation. He's after a certain spirit in which by asking a question one can do no less than philosophize (IM 13). For our purposes, I want to focus on three of his statements, two of which are quotations from Nietzsche:
- Philosophizing... is extra-ordinary questioning about the extra-ordinary. (IM 14)
- Nietzsche once said: "A philosopher: that is a human being who constantly experiences, sees, hears, suspects, hopes, dreams extraordinary things..." (IM 13)
- The same Nietzsche says: "Philosophy... means living voluntarily amid ice and mountain ranges." (IM 14)
I'll begin with the last statement. "Philosophy... means living voluntarily amid ice and mountain ranges." For those of us who consider Socrates the philosopher--despite his being mainly a literary fiction, why not?--this is a challenge. Socrates resides in the agora, frustrating attractive young men who overpaid for their rhetorical training until they want to hang out with him. In a way, Socrates is distant from everyone else. He's not thinking about "What is justice?" or "How does virtue work?" all the time; he does have semi-private thoughts about what philosophy means to do. But it is a stretch to say he lives "amid ice and mountain ranges," because he does not. You can say Plato gives us a Socrates thinking through philosophy as a social and erotic endeavor, one which leads to direct confrontation with the very idea of political life.
For Heidegger and Nietzsche, the question is how to be untimely. Can a philosopher be a loner? Accept isolation? Can they reside where no one else does, where others barely survive, looking from above at the rest of life while determining their own path? I believe this is a convincing way to put the ideas of the "extraordinary," "ice," and "mountain ranges" together. Rather than say a philosopher wrestles with extraordinary topics like "God" or "justice" or "the nature of the universe," they're open to the notion that extreme unsociability and forging paths outside of civilization create vantages no one else has. This would imply that a philosopher is someone who puts themselves in a unique position. They constantly experience, sense, and imagine extraordinary things because that is the nature of living on high; their questioning is extra-ordinary in part because they have to find their way back to the ordinary.
All this is well and good, but none of it speaks to the experience of living in 21st century America. I can't just say "I'm going to think of myself as a complete outsider" unless I want to quote Roman generals repeatedly and talk to incels. Nor can I pick fights about various virtues and expect that to do anything except become more online blather. For us, philosophy has to start with what is at hand. It's got to start with the images we consider attractive, or to put it another way, who we imagine ourselves becoming.
That start, to be sure, has overtones of Plato, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. If people say they like a certain politician because he doesn't take crap from anyone and uses his success to his advantage, they've certainly outlined an image on the wall of the cave. They've also found an individual they believe is untimely. Still, I think the overtones can horribly mislead. What's important is not how the sentiments of people in general are formed. There are always people who want to be on a winning team no matter what.
More interesting is whether we can see how images formed us. For myself, I thought philosophy was absolutely useless when I was in high school. I had no idea what it was but I was sure it was impractical. Why do we need to ask questions when we know what's right? Service is what mattered, and if you wanted to serve you had to at least try. 18 year old me was obsessed with the notion that honors and awards mattered. (Ironically enough, 39 year old me rediscovered this with a more essential truth. They do matter because you can't speak for yourself all the time. You need to attend to a reputation, if only for those who depend on you.)
I got to college and everything fell apart. The very idea of higher learning was compelling and entrancing and so far beyond me. I wanted to know all the things, but no matter what I did, I felt ignorant. I was getting grades (sometimes) and learning facts but I wasn't able to put it all together in any way I could express. This was a problem in part because the real class divide in our educational system is between those who are encouraged to express themselves and those who are told to get their basics done. But it was mainly a problem back when I was 20 because this was a taste of knowledge of ignorance, and our society for various reasons has no idea what to do with sincerity. I had plenty of teachers who were no less than heroic, but there's not much that can be done when the overarching message is that caring is a problem.
What hooked me on philosophy was getting a C in a class on Wittgenstein. I reread the Philosophical Investigations a few times afterward until I could explain how Wittgenstein asking how an arrow points was a rejoinder to a number of ideas about language, truth, and meaning. I finally felt like I had learned something, but I had no idea whether it was valuable or who I could even talk about it with.
Again, there are overtones of older notions of philosophy in my story, but a few features stand out to me. First, many of us imagine ourselves moral and powerful in a way that eschews the heights of higher learning. Previous ages had the idea of a "gentleman:" there was such a thing as too much learning for them, but there was still a commitment to not blindly repeat whatever a radio talk show host said. Second, philosophy has especial relevance today because our classroom environments throw things at students and tell them to figure it out. Specifically, philosophical schools and cults are relevant, if for no other reason than in them, a mentor or guru has to pay close attention to how someone receives what they've said. The difference can be akin to being talked over in class via Powerpoint versus having a coach work with you on your crossover and pull-up jumper. Finally, while actually learning something is always a radicalizing or isolating event, it is especially so in our day and age. We often measure who is a good candidate for holding the nuclear codes by how much money they raise.
That's my reaction to philosophy as "extraordinary." For the most part for me, philosophy has been a clarification of the ordinary: the proper place of power; the role of attention in adding something new to your mind; a reminder of what it ultimately means to learn something. I'd rather say this is "quiet" and "small" even though I know the consequences are enormous. Philosophy in this day and age has to confront a plethora of lazy assumptions magnified and transformed by mass media which have invaded our concept of education. Without that work, we have nothing to say.
Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics. Translation Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven: Yale, 2000. 13-14.