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Doing Philosophy:
Thinking Independently

by John Paolini

At 74 years of age, I can see how I have confused the study of philosophy with the study of the history of ideas because of my personal history. I did not see that, as Heidegger put it, "Distentiality, averageness, and leveling down, as ways of Being...for what we know as 'publicness'...[it] controls every way in which [we are] interpreted, and it is always is insensitive to every difference of level and of genuineness..." (Being and Time p.165). We are 'disburdened' of our being. We are afraid to lift up our heads, take ourselves seriously and resist being pushed back down by peers, colleagues and family. So the first thing in doing philosophy is awakening from the safety of publicness and to risk our selves.

In college, Temple University in Philadelphia, I majored in Philosophy. I was looking for wisdom. My working class background lacked guidance for living and working in the professional world. I never had the thought of not going to college. I was programmed for moving "upward" in society. I knew that that was a different world than the comfortable world of Italo-Americano South Philadelphia. I also knew that it was a colder world outside the neighborhood.

My father and I shared one single idea. We could think of no good reason to sacrifice our children for our country. Governments make war. It is not our affair. We also were sure that war was immoral. Killing is not an option. In this spirit my father sent me off to a "Bible School" to become a pastor. I was never a good fundamentalist. I next went to Temple University for a liberal arts education and then to seminary. While I was in Bible School I salivated for a liberal arts school. I was right. That was one of the best parts of my life.

My father was a toolmaker and his own man. I have not been as emotionally independent as my father but I was cursed by inheriting his habit of thinking his own thoughts and reaching his own conclusions. Despite the fact that he bought the fundamentalist religious package he never did quite fit in with that group. People liked him because he was genuine. As you can see the study of philosophy could not help me in the Methodist ministry. The only necessary subject to study for that would have been to study practical political thinking, that is, "How to fit in and get ahead." As I look back any thought outside the "box" would mean problems.

Philosophy did not teach wisdom as I conceived it. I was not taught how to succeed in the real world. What I was taught was being suspicious of conventional wisdom or as Al Schutz called it "recipe knowledge." What I was taught was not want I wanted. I wanted to fit in. If a person does not fit in most people think he has a sexual problem, is mentally ill, or is of a lower social class. I was not any of these. I was never taught conventional thinking. Philosophy could have taught me to think my own thoughts better but I chose the ministry. That was a retardant to thought.

One of my professors, a wonderful man, was a Marxist; the other a pragmatist. This materialist orientation reinforced my doubts about theism. I never did learn to fit in the church. I did not change much from my father who embarrassed me as a child. In my sixties, I was told by the head of the social work program that I was a troublemaker.

I found philosophy fascinating. But I was not taught to do philosophy. While I was encouraged to think and to think well, the fact remained that my teacher was called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee and lost his job by not answering their questions. I learned that thinking could get me into a lot of trouble and that expressing myself was worse. Still "the apple fell close to the tree" and expressing my thoughts and arguing them had been part of my programming. The way around this problem was to stick close to established ideas in the history of philosophy.

In my middle fifties I resigned from a good position as a hospital chaplain. I plummeted into downward mobility. When I was sixty-two years of age, I earned my MSW degree and became a medical social worker in an agency in which I fit in not at all. Compared to the others, I had too much education. I was seen as a loose canon and was constantly reminded that I was not a professional employee and had to be micro-managed. It was an intellectual and emotional slum but I was able through self-deception and feeling powerless to last there more than five years bent over backwards. Finally I could "dumb down" no longer and was forced out. Again I found another argument against thinking.

I began to audit philosophy classes at our local Community College. There a student said that his life goal was to, "do philosophy." It took me a long time to understand what he meant.

I will not discuss how to do philosophy. I am still learning.

I know that I must risk my competence to look foolish because I don't use the tools of the trade skillfully. One reason is that logical positivism bored me silly. I avoided the tools of symbolic logic because I felt that for me what I needed was not there. It was dryer than fundamentalism and blander than liberalism. I was never introduced to the nurturing juices of phenomenology and existentialism. Yet for testing out speech and ideas it is a help.

The other bit I have learned is that the problem chooses me and not I the problem. Choosing the problem is done existentially. It comes from the effort of living with at least a minimum of good faith.

For instance one of my problems is that being brought up as I was I have a great appetite for religion. Yet I must say that the church for me is simply a self-perpetuating organization. It is outdated in its concerns, like the "March Of Dimes", a program from before World War II that battled against Polio. It now searches for a new reason to exist as a political tool. It is not concerned with ultimate reality. I am like the Gnostics who detested hierarchy and were disappointed with the church's orthodoxy and the whole model of theism. They called the god of the church a "demiurge" that usurped ultimate being. The way Philosophy helps is to bring me into a tradition of those concerned with the problems of existence and who have searched out and interrogated some of the answers.

Then having done my homework I can begin to find answers within myself.

© John Paolini 2001