A Room Full of Philosophers Broke My Heart

A room full of philosophers broke my heart today.

Upon entering the building they handed me a tote bag full of papers and a green tag with my name to swing around my neck. Puffing together in a circle at their cigarettes, they stomped on the butts when called inside and spilled their coffee walking through the door. They entered in their dark suits trailed by Old Spice cologne. Grinning stained teeth they laughed as they bent and sunk into their seats. The introducer was a balding historian who spoke of the value of philosophy. We appreciate, he said, the value of the department; it will not be disappearing from Murdoch University. Old, wrinkled hands were brought together in a clap before the presentations began.

They pulled out their papers, reading along with and ahead of the retired German presenter. I sat upright gripping my pencil and scrawled notes onto the pages. He tripped over his words as they told him he had ten minutes left. He scowled at the timekeeper and finished the presentation having thrown around words and said nothing at all.

As the presentations rolled on I slumped further into my seat, dropping my papers and pencil, and thought about something else. The air was thick and we were falling asleep. When we got outside and the sun hit my face, it came to me: this is not philosophy. These people spat strange words and rehearsed arguments thought by someone else. They spoke of the same books, the same names, and all agreed that, yes, that is what so-and-so meant about such-and-such, and yes, we have all performed well, and yes, this is all terribly, terribly important. But from the footpath, watching them drinking their coffee and congratulating each other for having read the same things and thought the same things and said the same things, I wondered, For whom is this important?

This was a gathering of professional teachers of philosophy, an association Karl Jaspers criticised as “diffused, artificial, and unreal”. This was a self-sufficient artificial world wherein philosophy is the most important thing, but only insofar as the citizens face inwards, and do not see the world outside. Philosophy, self-contained, is nothing. It must always be guided and directed towards the world we live in, the lives we lead, and the others around us. Philosophers who do nothing but theorise and master the words and arguments of their heroes are not philosophers at all, but phantoms; they do not live in this world, but are somehow still there, faint, like an echo. Philosophers must, ultimately, be guided by the question, What shall we do? And in order to ask that question, they must be able to do, that is, be in the world, with everyone else.

Philosophers mustn’t forget that they are, first and foremost, persons. They begin life as laymen, equal with all others, and this never leaves them. Abstracting from this experience is important, of course, and in doing so we must develop a specialised set of tools with which to handle this newfound perspective. But just as surgeons, with finely crafted and highly specialised tools, are worthless if they sit at their desks and only theorise about performing surgery, so, too, do philosophers need to be able to come back from their abstracted world and apply what they’ve learnt in the world of laymen. Without this ultimate goal, philosophers disappear from the world and cease to live.

And so, watching a room full of people who call themselves philosophers, running down the rabbit hole and refusing to come back up – indeed, with no way to come back up – I thought to myself, If this is what philosophy is, then I want no part of it. This, after having fallen in love with philosophy – a love ignited by these very same people, only in the classroom – truly did break my heart.