Philosophy and Friendship

Philosophy is not generally thought of as a social force or a means of healing. My general impression is that academic philosophy is a force for division and it leaves more psychic wounds than it ever heals. But this is my personal impression based on an academic career that was troubled by drugs and alcohol and mental illness. Academia, however, is not the only place to practice philosophy. Philosophy is alive in the living rooms and coffee shops where friends gather to speculate about our mysterious existence. In my mind, that is where philosophical friendship thrives.

Philosophical friendship, as far as I can tell, builds rather than tears down. So much of academic philosophy is given to the adversarial picture of how to stake out a position: the opposition must be destroyed in order to clear cut land for building one’s own position. But I have been blessed to have stumbled into a group of hungry minds who do not operate under the adversarial picture. Instead, my circle of philosophers is a circle of friends, mostly in their 80s, confronting questions of health and mortality, worried over the political and economic and environmental legacy we will leave the following generations. They are genuinely curious about how to make sense of human life. And they respect each other to the point that they listen and build on one another’s insights. There is no clear cutting.

This picture of philosophical friendship is radically different from the picture we have in American life of how to pursue, for example, economic and political questions. There is little room for truth in the American debates because the aim is not discovery but victory. We do not value truth or beauty. If we pay attention to the intellectual landscape, we must prize fear and anger, and winning over everything.

But that picture is one that leads to death. Spiritual death. The life of the soul, as I read it, is deepest when we confront the unknown. The American way cannot handle the unknown. What we confront must be reduced to an object, fully understood when it has its pay off realized. To confront and appreciate the unknown is to have the insight that all is false, every insight misses the mark. And with that we come to realize that we are on an endless journey of discovery. We do not make the mark, but we continue to get closer. And every miss is an insight.

Perhaps in death we make the mark. I do not know, but I have hope. Along the way, though, I have friends.