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Words That Inspire

I am feeling quite melancholic at the moment, mostly due to romantic inclinations that have plagued me as of late and of which I cannot escape. At times like these I seek words that inspire, words that make me feel whole again, words that will make my own troubles seem distant and of little importance. These words will make little sense–and for that reason will likely be of little interest–to the reader as they do not address or reference any particular problems that have come before me (who would be interested in that anyways?) But they do meet the criteria that I have set forth above, namely, of inspiration and wholeness. Here I quote for you one of my favorite philosophical passages I have yet to read. This is a piece of meta-philosophy (fancy talk for philosophical reflections on the nature and purpose of philosophy) but what is said here is applicable to all argumentation, and as such is applicable to all academic disciplines and to the way we go about discourse in general with the people we care about most. From the pen of Robert Nozick, a man whose career was cut all-too short given his rare brilliance:

I, too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight through, a book, even, to bring reading to stop…

Familiar questions impel this essay: Does life have meaning? Are there objective ethical truths? Do we have free will? What is the nature of our identity as selves? Must our knowledge and understanding stay within fixed limits? These questions moved me, and others, to enter the study of philosophy. I care what their answers are. While such other philosophical intricacies as whether sets or numbers exist can be fun for a time, they do not make us tremble.

Our various questions stem from one: how are we valuable and precious? Consider the issue of free will, for example. Often, philosophers treat this as a question about punishment and responsibility: how can we punish someone for an action, or hold him responsible, if it was causally determined, eventually by factors going back to before his birth, hence outside his control? My concerns with free will, however, is not rooted in a desire to punish people or hold them responsible, or even to be held responsible myself. Without free will we seem diminished, merely the playthings of external causes. Our value seems undercut…

My concern is not only intense but directed. I want (to be able) to conclude that we are worthwhile and precious. But this bias does not mean I refuse to follow philosophical reason where it leads. Fortunately, two factors help me avoid conclusions of valuelessness. No philosophical argument forces us to accept its (unpleasant) conclusions; instead, we always can pursue the philosophical task of uncovering the argument’s defects…The second factor is an optional stop rule. I do not stop the philosophical reasoning until it leads me where I want to go; then I stop…

When a philosopher sees that premisses [sic] he accepts logically imply a conclusion he has rejected until now, he faces a choice: he may accept this conclusion, or reject one of the previously accepted premisses, or even postpone the decision about which to do. His choice will depend upon which is greater, the degree of his commitment to the various premisses or the degree of his commitment to denying the conclusion. It is implausible that these are independent of how strongly he wants certain things to be true…

We may wonder whether a philosophy with a foregone conclusion can have any value at all. That a philosophy aims at a conclusion, though, does not guarantee it will reach it. We learn something of value in discovering that our goal can be reached. Since also the general aim will not determine the precise character of the conclusion reached, and since the very purpose of reaching may be worthwhile itself, we need not devalue a philosophical inquiry that is teleologically directed…

A philosopher’s seriousness is judged by the quality of his arguments. Children think an argument involves raised voices, anger, negative emotion. To argue with someone is to attempt to push him around verbally. But a philosophical argument isn’t like that–is it?…

A philosophical argument is an attempt to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not. A successful philosophical argument, a strong argument, forces someone to a belief.

Though philosophy is carried on as a coercive activity, the penalty philosophers wield is, after all, rather weak. If the other person is willing to bear the label of “irrational” or “having the worse arguments,” he can skip away happily maintaining his previous belief. He will be trailed, of course, by the philosopher furiously hurling philosophical imprecations: “What do you mean, you’re willing to be irrational? You shouldn’t be irrational because…” And although the philosopher is embarrassed by his inability to complete this sentence in a noncircular fashion–he can only produce reasons for accepting reasons–still, he is unwilling to let his adversary go.

Wouldn’t it be better if philosophical arguments left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence? Even then, he might sit there silently, smiling, Buddhalike. Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies…Yet, as with other physical threats…he can choose defiance.

Why are philosophers intent on forcing others to believe things? Is that a nice way to behave toward someone?…[This] does not fit the original motivation for studying or entering philosophy. That motivation is puzzlement, curiosity, a desire to understand, not a desire to produce uniformity of belief.

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