Tuesday, August 28, 2012

If I had listened to Hegel

If I had listened to Hegel, life might be different. I don't know where we'd be living or if I would have found a job teaching philosophy. But If I'd listened to Hegel, I'd know the answers.

I met Hegel for the first time in Dr. Bob Anderson's logic class at Washington College. I asked Dr. Anderson if he bought into how the logic we were learning related to real-life. He was an Obi-wan Kenobi kind of figure, who always had me listening for more than was going on in class. He said he personally subscribed to Hegelian logic. That was before I Googled. Off to the library.

Modern philosophy class with Dr. Anderson danced closer to Hegel, by way of Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant. Philosophy had its hooks in my spirit long before Washington College, but Anderson and company, ancient philosophy, Thomas Kuhn, Nietzsche, Buddhism, I was happily soaking in the existential hot tub--reading Kierkegaard, Camus and Dostoevsky over the summer for no reason.

As I worked on my English degree, dialed in on William Blake, Wordsworth and British Romanticism, Hegel hung in the background, an influence. His dialectic logic surfaced everywhere. I was skimming the surface, but didn't have a chance to dive deep. Hegel's tome "Phenomenology of Spirit," stared me down.

I am motivated by challenges. Bigger challenge, more motivation. Hegel's Phenomenology has been pegged both as one of the crowning achievements of modern philosophy and one of the ten most difficult books of all time. Game on, Hegel. Let's dance.

Dr. Anderson and I talked graduate schools for philosophy. This would be where I would dance or wrestle with Hegel, the lion at the gate of the contemporary deep thinkers who followed him. The ring, or dance floor (sorry, can't pick which metaphor I prefer), was Duquesne University.

And then it wasn't. The siren-call of a real job and income drowned out Hegel. His finger-on-my-chest, German breath in my grill challenge became a whisper. It was almost like a kid outgrowing Santa Claus, pushing the pursuit of the philosophy career out for something more practical. But I know better.

I've always heard Hegel, before I knew who he was. I've always been my fullest self when I'm absorbed in study and activity, whether philosophy or literature, or running. And I know that Hegel gets closer to reality and being than Wall Street and big business can even sniff.

Funny thing is, I can apply Hegel's dialectic (thesis, then its antithesis or opposite, combining in a synthesis of both) to any part of my own life and it works. Take my slothful, hazy unstudying years at N.C. State. They led to my running and lifting weights, in shape years of serious study at Washington College while working, which led to the jobs and writing that followed.

I can still hear Hegel. His Phenomenology sits in a box of books in our garage. Yesterday (Aug. 27) was Hegel's birthday, which got me thinking about him again. Our cage match or dance is still coming. Sure, if I'd listened to Hegel, my life might be different now. But truth is, I've never stopped listening.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Insane in the Montaigne

Sartre got me sick. His damn nausea, contagious from typed ink on a book written more than 30 years before I was born. But it's not the ink, it's the words are contagious. No, not the words, the ideas behind them.

I wouldn't be concerned if I were you. Maybe you were vaccinated. Maybe they don't get to you. But the existentialists have always soared me and sunk me. It's not that they are right or wrong, it's that they speak to how I am wired. The questions I have, the ones I ask when driving to or from work, or when I wake up, or when I can't sleep. These questions you either ask, or you don't. Some ask them.

Jim Holt asks them. He has compiled and culled a book called "Why Does the World Exist?" I've been asking that question since I was knee-deep in marsh water building bridges and forts to play war. It's part of what tractor-beamed me to study philosophy. Holt digs in and asks folks that might know something about it. I'm just digging into his book, but if you want a taste, Kathryn Schulz wrestles with the idea and the book in one of the most thought-provoking book reviews I've read. Check the technique.

Philosophers, poets and storytellers are the dog-walkers who lead me around by a leash. I don't follow blindly, but I'm led. I'm not after answers, but possibilities.

Our seven year old can't stop singing Cypress Hill's "Insane in the Brain." (for the record, it's the edited for radio version on a mix CD, she really doesn't get the lyrics, just the sticky hook). I can't blame her, I've always dug Cypress Hill myself.

At the same time, I've been reading Michel de Montaigne's "Essays." Montaigne didn't mind searching himself for answers, examining what he thought, on the page, to see what he thought. In his words, "I put forward formless and unresolved notions... not to establish truth, but to seek it."

I think that's what I'm after, or maybe what I'm trying to do. A life's pursuit. Maybe. Or I might just be insane in the Montaigne...