Intellectual Estrangement (2011-15): A Mystery

If there is one thing that all conversation partners and philosophical friends have in common, one thing that can be gleaned from the winter of 2011 to the present, it is the theme of intellectual estrangement. Each, alone, has come to me because his thoughts have seemed very much his own, very unlike the thoughts of others, and there seems to be no one who can take, or at least who has taken, such matters seriously. For the longest time too, perhaps throughout most of his life, he has come to assume that he is so strange, so utterly peculiar, such an oddity of a human being that there must be nobody else with whom he can speak, let alone make sense of his thoughts. It is a certain kind of loneliness rarely discussed and rarely disclosed.

It turns out that these thoughts are such as to cut to the marrow of life. “What is real? What can we know? Is there a self? Why do I exist? What is it all about?” These questions as well as others swallow up their lives. “If I’m not a self, then who or what am I? And how am I (who is this ‘I’ again?) to live?” Or: “Suppose I know that I exist. Granting that much, I still don’t know why I exist.” There are questions that make up their thinking, questions that no one else seems to be asking, questions that become secrets, kept to themselves for fear of further alienation.

One can go one step further in claiming that this sense of intellectual estrangement pervades their lives, wrapping up their very existence. Not that a single question occurs such as “What is really real?” and that is all. Rather that someone lives with that question, moving through the world so unconventionally, so unorthodoxically that he seems a stranger to nearly everyone else, feeling the bizarreness of many things, most especially the bizarreness of his existence. To wonder deeply about how to live is also to live, most likely, in such a way that isn’t at all ordinary, accepted, conventional, or immediately comprehensible. The estrangement goes that deep and probably deeper than words can readily convey, but suffice it to say it alludes always to the mysterious nature of all existence.

What I have seen over all these years is how dialogue–specifically the philosophical conversation–can make what was insular and secretive appear, as it really should, welcome, open, and worthy of investigation. Not only is the subject taken seriously but the inquirer, who has been burning with such questions for some time, is taken seriously. And that is novel, at least for him. Better yet: it is now plain for him to see that the question concerning the nature of reality really should be taken seriously and by others too.

Things accordingly take an interesting turn, getting turned around. Where before the conversation partner had thought himself strange for wrestling with strange questions on his own, now he believes that others are strange for taking as self-evident and self-explanatory the sorts of phenomena that yearn to be turned over, mulled over, and comprehended. How can one not see such things, so apparent that they dazzle and astonish? Of course, now the more interesting question for him is: how to live kindly and considerately with those for whom the world appears self-evident? And so long as he wonders this: has he overcome intellectual estrangement yet?

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