NOTES FROM THE JUNGLE

Whenever I give a talk, one of my favorite opening schticks is, “Of the things I care least about, the historicity of the Empty Tomb and global warming are pretty much in a dead heat. What I do care about, however, is …” And then I introduce my topic.

I do this mostly because it irritates the hell out of an otherwise much-beloved colleague for whom global warming is the most urgent problem facing the world today, including anyone’s having to pee. But it also sends the message that I don’t want to squander what (rapidly diminishing) mental resources I still have on things that don’t matter, or if they do matter we can’t or won’t do anything about them. Whether the tomb was empty, or whether after three days it stank as it would were it not, says nothing about the truth of Christianity. And whether global warming is true or not, my colleagues are going to continue to drive their Hummers and fly rather than skype themselves into their various save-the-world conferences.

So I talk instead about things that do matter, and about which we can do something. Like what? Like whether the occupation of space is or is not infinitely divisible. I argue that it’s not, which if I’m right solves Zeno’s Paradox, which in turn means my getting from my office to the classroom is not an illusion. Because if it were, my students would have had to come to me rather than me to them, and there wouldn’t have been enough room in my office for even half of them.

Okay, that was tongue in cheek. Metaphysics is fun. It’s brain candy. But it trains the mind for being meticulous where one’s philosophical rubber does his the road. And where is that? On how to distribute the material and liberal dividends of civil society to keep it civil. On how to avoid war, or at least constrain its destructiveness when it can’t be avoided. On whether a woman’s right to reproductive autonomy is a trumping right or a merely contingent one, and if the later, contingent on what? And so on.

Whether the tomb was empty or not is not a philosophical problem. Whether life after death makes any sense is. Whether there is or is not global warming is not a philosophical problem. How we come to believe what we do about it is.

It’s not a matter of sticking to what we’re good at. Some philosophers are equally good at other things, and some who are good at other things aren’t very good at philosophy. Rather it’s a matter of making it clear when we’ve changed hats.

To try to put philosophy at the service of some cause, no matter how laudable that cause, is to undercut its credibility. Our job is to take the wind out of the sails of the Crusader’s ships. Our job is to browbeat the proselytizer, whether for Jesus or for global justice, into getting clear on the concepts she trots out on the other side of the screen door. It’s to demand of the social justice warrior, if need be kicking and screaming, what she means by ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ and ‘sustainability’. We can’t do this by joining in this sloppiness.

This is not to say that practitioners of other disciplines, or teachers of homiletics, are required by some cosmic ordinance to submit themselves to the admittedly peculiar demands of our discipline. On the contrary, one does not analyze a love poem for its syntax, nor purge Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of all its metaphors. Poets and preachers have their work, we ours. But philosophy is neither poetry nor homily. It’s soulless because it has to be. A surgeon who can’t abide the sight of blood needs to hand the scalpel to a colleague who can.

Why do I say all this? Because sometimes I get the feeling that I’m the last survivor of the Vienna Circle. That not unlike the Japanese soldier in the jungle, I didn’t get the news the war is over, and that what was for me the discipline of philosophy has long since moved on.

Sometimes I hide at the edge of the clearing and listen in on what these round-eyes – all scandalously out of uniform, by the way – are jabbering on about. LGBT rights, trans-sexuals … For the longest time I couldn’t figure out what they’re talking about. But I think I have it now. We used to call the former fags and the latter confused. Now they talk is as if we were confused. Our textbooks used to have titles like The Enduring Questions of Philosophy. But I don’t remember Plato asking any questions about what bathroom one should be allowed to use, and so these can’t be among the questions that have endured..

It’s a brave new world out there beyond my jungle home. I was told to hold until relieved, so I guess that’s what I’ll do. And besides, I have a bumper crop of wild rice, so it should be a good year for making saki.

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