For the past two weeks I have done zero philosophy. I defended my comprehensive exams and heeded the advice from my advisor–to do nothing. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of not doing anything since I cannot remember the last time that I actually had such a long period of time to not be working, reading, writing, or studying. Since at least the summer of 2007, my summer “breaks” have been filled with reading for summer institutes, studying for the GRE to get into grad school, teaching myself to read and translate French, teaching summer classes…etc. And I have so deeply integrated philosophy into my life, or perhaps I have just been so well trained, that I am one of those nerds who hasn’t picked up fiction in years, and instead, when I have a free moment, I get excited about using the opportunity to read more Nietzsche. But for the past two weeks, even when Foucault was tempting me, I decided to discipline myself to not do philosophy. And although my task for this summer is incredibly daunting–researching enough to be able to sketch out the structure of my dissertation–I have avoided even thinking about the pieces of my big project and how they might fit together. I have really resisted doing any philosophical work in the past two weeks.
It feels weird, strangely defiant and indulgent at the same time. And it feels great.
Although I said that I have been doing nothing, that isn’t really true. I’ve been doing lots of things, like sitting on street benches in the sun, sitting outside of cafes, having picnics in parks and sitting in the grass, and sitting on the patios of bars. When people walk by and ask what I am doing, I tell them that I am doing nothing, but obviously I am doing a great deal of sitting.
And talking. When I sit out in public like that doing nothing, people tend to start talking to me. They may even sit with me for just a bit before they carry on with whatever they were doing as part of their day. And because of this, I’ve met a number of new people in the past couple of weeks, engaged in many, many casual conversations, made some new friends, and reconnected with old ones.
I also have gone dancing more than a few times, met up with people at bars more than I have in the past year, and I joined my best friend on her cross-country move from Massachusetts to Seattle, WA, which means that in driving across the entire country, I’ve also been in twelve states, and seen people in all of them, including friends from my high school and college days, some family members, and lots and lots and lots of people in tiny towns and cities on I-80. For this trip I left my laptop at home and the only book I brought was my moleskine journal. There’s not even the possibility for me to be doing any philosophical work.
After two weeks of doing nothing, I’ve felt amazingly calm. I haven’t been antsy, I haven’t felt guilty, and I don’t feel like piles and piles of work are mounting (well, to be honest, there’s been a little of that…). But I have felt really relaxed and present. I’ve noticed that my mental space is much clearer and quieter. When I sit outside, I can just sit for hours with a tea and watch what happens around me. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so intensely for my comprehensive exams for the past four and a half months, but there is a sense of relief that has come with not filling my mind with the conversations I’m having with other philosophers through a text. And when the silence breaks, it’s because I’m having a conversation with another person. You know, the kind were we laugh and get to know one another.
And with this space and time to be with others, do more fun things, and travel across the country, I’ve noticed a couple of things. My conversations and everyone else’s days continue to go on with or without philosophical content being a central part of them. The experience has been grounding and very humbling. In the first week of my “do nothing” break, I was sitting on the patio of the bar that has become my new hang out when someone asked me, “What is the role of philosophy in society today?” and I replied, “That’s a really good question.” I ask myself that all of the time, after all, that’s one of THE questions that motivates my work! But I still don’t have a very coherent response to it. And it’s a good question because most people aren’t exposed to philosophy, and if they are, it isn’t usually on very deep levels. And since people’s lives seem to continue on just fine without it, it makes sense to question philosophy’s role and significance. I get that. For me, it was an important reminder that despite the pressures and expectations of “making it” in Academia and what it takes to make a name for yourself and who the big shots are and how you have to do certain things to be anything like them, the philosophy world is unfortunately insular, especially in America. There are many philosophers who do really good and important and creative and inventive work, but it is also the case that it is often mostly only other philosophers who have access to and value it. But it’s fair to ask, is that philosophy’s only role?
|This man is one of those people in Seattle.|
Today, while reflecting on our cross-country drive in a cafe in Seattle, my friend exclaimed, “There are a lot of people in the world!” I understood what she meant and why there was an element of shock in her recognition of this seemingly obvious fact. Wherever we would drive, wherever we would stop, there were people there; people with their own lives and their own stories and thoughts and hurts and joys and families and goals and struggles…there were people in Dix, Nebraska. Really. When we stopped there to get gas, the woman who was working in the store and the four men who were sitting in chairs talking to her offered me a shot of whiskey. These people and lots of other people like them are out there in the world, and they probably don’t give a damn about who my professors are or the books they have written.
I said that these weeks have been humbling, and that is because I am one of the first to emphasize the importance of philosophy on our lives and how we exist in the world, yet over these past two weeks I have allowed myself to deliberately maintain a distance from professional philosophy. And I truly think that it has been a *healthy* distance. This is weird, right? Disconcerting? Maybe. I’m one to argue that philosophy has the capacity to transform us and the world! And despite all of my cynicism about philosophical neologisms, I made up my own word to capture the complexly interrelated nature of life and philosophy and plastered it all around my blog and youtube channel. But after grounding myself in the “everydayness” and reality of non-philosophers, and really enjoying my time there dancing, sitting outside, talking about lots of ridiculous and funny things, should I now insert my foot and eat my words?
I don’t know.
Of course I still value philosophy and the role that it plays in my life. And after these two weeks I am nowhere near wanting to relinquish my lifestyle, drop the books forever, and just carry on without philosophy. I actually don’t think that I could really even do that because philosophy literally has changed me. But I do have a renewed respect for what life outside of the Academy (for myself and for others) can be like, and I think I have a healthier perspective on my goals in philosophy…they are still just as passionate, but much more modest.
There’s one more very important thing to note: In the past two weeks I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. Not about the arguments and chapters that will go into my dissertation, but about other important life stuff, like relationships, behavioral patterns, understanding myself and my experiences, emotions, and needs better. Rather than thinking about what so-and-so means by some passage of coded language, I’ve used this time to get to know myself better. The insights that I have gained have been illuminating beyond belief, and as far as self-care and “knowing thyself” goes, I know that I have done more work for styling my own existence in a matter of days then I have by reading 43 books this semester. My own personal learning over these two weeks has been invaluable and I’m referring to insights that will no doubt make me a better, stronger, and healthier person (These “Aha!” moments might just have to wait for another blog post). And I was able to uncover, realize, synthesize, and understand so much precisely because I had given myself the space and time to do so. Yes, philosophy is important and even an important way of caring for our selves, but I guess I’m trying to note that we need to have time to do other things that enable us to care for ourselves in other ways, too.
I’d love to think that doing those other things is itself philosophically significant insofar as it fuels a richer philosophy and makes one a better philosopher…which means that even though I said that I haven’t been doing any philosophy and I have started to even wonder about my own term, “philifesophy,” this skepticism is probably indicative of an important oversight. Perhaps I somewhere lost touch and misled myself by thinking that the value of philosophy was found in what it offers our lives, that is, how it helps shape and guide and transform us into new subjects. But if it was just that then I would be overemphasizing the idea that philosophy is important for life without giving full acknowledgment of how life is necessary for philosophy.
For these past two weeks, then, I am very grateful that I have had the opportunity to do nothing, which has actually allowed me to do a lot of good living. And perhaps this is the best approach to philosophy after all (I really think that it is).