10 October 2010

A portrait of the blogger as a young philosopher-I

The google John Lennon logo inspired me to write something about Lennon and James Joyce and so much other stuff that I had to break it up into three parts. This post is about my initiation into the practice of philosophy. Coffee shop philosophy, not academic philosophy.

When I arrived in college they quickly corrected my whack notion that Ayn Rand was an authoritative philosopher. There were four essential texts that every Berkeley coffee shop philosopher was required to study in 1980. I list them in descending priority order.

Text 1 - The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus.

It is hard to communicate how dominating this book was in that particular zeitgeist. Ten short years earlier, Berkeley had been the center of the earthly intellectual universe; this may as well have been a hundred years ago. Hippies and love had degenerated into street people and poverty and a culture of beggars. These folks were nostalgic for something that never existed but for a few weeks back in 1967. There were a few professional academics who looked to make a permanent home there. Most of us were passing through and we really got Camus' message about the absurdity of earthly existence.

Suicide is the really the only meaningful philosophical question. Indeed. It was an explosive idea and when you are twenty it makes you feel special and especially alive to grab onto that. In retrospect I don't think many of us appreciated how sad Camus was, that Clemence in The Fall is such a pathetic instance of a literary hero. I certainly did not appreciate it then and I hope that I can do so now with clear hindsight.

Text 2 - The Way of Zen by Alan Watts.

Watts' book was the introduction to Buddhist and eastern philosophy for many of us. His ideas may not have aged well. They are not timeless as Buddhism. Most of us dabbled in meditation, did some zazen at the Berkeley Zen Center, and it was definitely a healthier route to altered states of consciousness than the available and alluring conventional ones of alcohol, cannabis, and LSD.

Pacifica radio was always playing excerpts from its library of recorded Watts lectures, and these were (and remain) delightful. One of Watts' most memorable descriptions of his work was when he said "I am not a teacher; I am an entertainer." It is not completely honest, in the same sense as Rush Limbaugh saying "I am not a politician; I am an entertainer", because the sad fact is that many gullible folks did look to Watts for religious instruction. The way of The Way of Zen is a consistent, reliable, and radically unconventional (from my point of view) perspective on the universe, our lives, ourselves, and our relations with others. I am wearing out my second copy of The Way of Zen, and it is nearly always great fun for me to read it.

Text 3 - Beyond Good and Evil by Friederich Nietzsche

There were two things that captivated us in Nietzsche. The first was his vainglorious atheism. Even today I am often struck by young people discovering that it is a quite normal option to be happy and virtuous and adapted to society and deny all religious belief. What we call an atheistic crisis may really be two crises--crisis one is when you realize there is no evidence for this God hypothesis and everything you were taught is largely fictional; crisis two comes later when you realize there are two worlds here. The believers and the unbelievers and there often is no visible marker as to which world you are in at any given moment. So much of our experience involves us interacting with people who we can not understand.

The other thing which captivated us was his life story as the lone tortured genius who was unread in his lifetime, but achieved an immortal greatness when people who were not even born when he died popularized his works. We were all lone tortured geniuses, you see, with an arrogance that eventually our brilliant written works would survive us as an immortal testimony to the madness of our time. Folly worthy of Erasmus, no doubt.

Text 4 - The Teachings of Don Juan, a Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda.

This was before the debunking of Castaneda's anthropological credentials, about which I still have not made up my mind. This book, which was advertised as Castaneda's ethnography thesis for his degree, may be a work of fiction. If it is a work of fiction, it is still a fine book; and if Castaneda was not a fine man, he was still a fine writer.

The thing which all these books had in common was an appeal to our individualism. The truth is out there, X-files style, and we have to be ever vigilant and skeptical when we explore the intellectual landscape. I got a nifty diploma there, but this lesson was the most valuable thing I found at Berkeley.

Then something happened which seemed to blow up the society that me and my friends made for ourselves. Douglas Hofstadter published Godel, Escher, Bach and the tension between the math-science-engineering geeks and the humanities students erupted into something like warfare. We seemed to lose the ability to sit in the coffee shop and talk to each other about our bigger ideas.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.