Philosophy Will Never Be Popular

1. Recent stories about philosophy in Silicon Valley imply that philosophy is becoming more popular. The mainstream media too implies that philosophy ought to be popular. Yet, I want to show, it can never be.

2. Let it be said at the outset that philosophy, insofar as it is the loving pursuit of living a vibrantly wise life, is in principle available to everyone, yet let it also be said here that philosophy has rarely been practiced save by a select few. We must ask ourselves why.

3. The reason, by my lights, can’t be that philosophy is “just plain hard” because it involves “thinking hard about thinking.” The explanation leaning on supreme effort is a red herring: many things are hard and that fact alone is what draws people to these activities.

4. A far better reason would be that philosophy as a way of life–that is, philosophy with teeth–begins only with an existential opening. Something has sundered me and has shattered my life. I’m splayed out. This sounds graphic, I know, but see whether it’s actually true.

5. After all, let’s accept, here and now, the fact that consensus reality is what most people believe in. What would be forceful enough, shocking enough to cause some intrepid soul to potentially lift the veil? I suggest that an existential opening is that jolt or shock.

6. For you have, don’t you?, to be rather mad, at least from the vantage point of consensus reality, to ask with such earnestness: “Is any of this really real? Does time exist? Who, ultimately, am I? Why bother living in the first place? Was I born? Is death something for me?” And so on.

7. To call such questions “a bit weird” is a grand understatement. Consider what it would actually take for someone to devote himself or herself to asking, to seeking to live such questions, and to thereby be transformed by them. It would have to take someone eccentric indeed!

8. If this line of reasoning is on the right track, then we have every reason to drop the “philosophy is or should be popular” slogan. Only then might we ask, “Is there something shocking enough to peel people off of consensus reality? Does that something ‘hurt so good'”?

9. For those who have stepped onto the path, paradoxes soon ensue. Such as: the way of suffering is the way of liberation. The greatest darkness is the greatest light. What I think and feel I am I am not. What is said to be real is unreal; only what is not spoken of is truly real. And so on.

10. For philosophers and seekers, the strange truth is that these paradoxes actually make perfectly good sense. And life, finally, is bathed in lightheartedness. Like the enlightened figure in the tenth Zen ox herding picture: a fat, bald man laughing among schoolchildren.

11. In short, we don’t need popular philosophy (for philosophy is not a “set of tools” for “critical thinking”). And we don’t need insight. What we need is incite.