Monday, July 28, 2008


Have you ever heard of a book called “Sophie’s World”? It was an incredibly popular novel in Europe in the 1990s, and while I was in South Africa back then I picked up a copy. Its plot is built around the teachings of the great Western philosophers, so that while you’re reading about the characters you’re also learning about Kant and Hegel and Kierkegaard.

I found it an incredibly BORING book. I got about 1/3 through it and stopped. And that’s very rare for me -- once I start reading a book, I almost never give up.

The problem, I think, is that I just don’t get philosophy. At the risk of sounding shallow, I think it’s possible to think too much about things. To try to identify rules that order our lives and the universe, or our reason for being, is an exercise in futility. (As I tell my friends, I am not a “big question” person.)

After all, who says there are any rules at all? Who says there’s a reason for life or our existence? All those discussions involve human constructs that have very little to do with what’s actually happening around us.

Maybe if I’d studied philosophy in school I wouldn’t feel this way. I’d have some foundation for comparing the various schools of thought. As it stands now, philosophy just annoys me. If I met Nietzsche in the street, I would say, “Oh, get over yourself already! Go to the beach! Pet your cat!”

This is one reason Zen appeals to me. It’s not about talking or arguing or trying to work things out. It’s just about being present to what is. In fact, in Zen, you want to release your ideas about existence and self, recognizing that they’re only ideas. To do this, you sit. You let all the thoughts come and go, and see that they’re only thoughts. The wisest thing you can say in Zen is, “I don’t know.”

(Which, of course, is a philosophy all its own, I suppose!)

(Photo: Playground in Hamilton Heights, July 2008)


  1. You are so not Jewish! In my culture, thinking and arguing about the alleged "rules" is lots of fun! Sinking into the deep waters of "why" isn't futile for those who enjoy it - and it's better than spending your time ripping off liquor stores or watching reality shows all day, yes?

    I honor that you are not a philosopher, but you are a big question person, you are. In your own way.

    One thing I love about humanity is our diversity in all things. That diversity can drive me crazy, too. Of course.

    Have fun today!

  2. I agree with you, Steve. Life just is.

  3. I don't get philosophy either. Most of the people I know who majored in philosophy were extremely smart and picked it as a last resort. I understand the present moment much better.

  4. The Matrix has you...

  5. philosophy is nothing more than a love of knowledge, wisdom and ideas - and I think you 'get this' ...what I expect you don't 'get' are certain philosophical 'schools' that are not very accessible or 'user friendly'

    in zen philosophical tradition 'I don't know' is demonstrating that you know .... it is a tenet of it's structure

    as a regular reader of s&l I can say you are quite the philosopher - but you just don't know it!

    studying philosophy in college (I took several classes, but in no means 'majored' in it) I think demystified PHILOSOPHY for me... and there's a lot of 'philosophy' out there that is pretty dense

    sometimes we can really understand the big things by look at the little things in life...

    I love your advice to nietzsche...he'd most certainly have been a happier person had someone given that to him and he followed it! ummmm I wonder if nietzsche had a cat? I expect he didn't and therein may have laid his problem!

  6. After a breakfast conversation with my husband about a philosophical construct called solipsism and how it applies to the blogosphere, I had to laugh out loud when I read this.

    I didn't enjoy Sophie's World either, btw. But not discussing philosophy in this household would lead to an immediate divorce, I'm sure.

    but we still pet our dog :-)

  7. Reya: I can appreciate some fun kinds of arguing, but you're right -- for the most part, I avoid 'em! I don't want to sink into the deep waters of "Why?" I'll just cling to the lifeboat, thank you very much. :)

    Merle: Bingo!

    Barbara: Hopefully not as a last resort for making money -- cuz that will never work.

    Utah: I loved that movie, but it freaked me out.

    Kim: I think you're right -- it's the DENSITY of some philosophy that puts me off. All that talk! Blah blah blah! Sheesh. But your point about "I don't know" being an element of the philosophy of Zen is a good one.

    RLB: Good. As long as the dog isn't left out. :)

  8. Hey Steve!
    Steve #1 here, your twin!
    I read Sophies world...only I managed to get through 2/3 before skipping to the end.

    It was one of those books that swallows its tail. I liked reading about the History of Knowledge and Philosophy, and hoped to get a overview as to ghow we got to the several places we are, but the author put it in a container that was hard to eat from. the Sophiw/Heihi and her Father thing.

    Same thing happened when I tried to read 'life of Pi"...almost cured me from reading.

  9. Steve: Now see, I loved "Life of Pi." For some reason that worked for me. Not nearly as dense!

  10. Back in the 60's when I was i college one of my good friends switched to a philosophy major and breezed through his courses, getting nothing less than an A. His secret: hard core use of alcohol and LSD. His brain was so fried that he transcended the way us mere mortals thought, and of course the professors loved him! Turn on, tune in, and drop out!!!

  11. John: I think a lot of philosophers took a similar route!