Thoughts on Philosophy: Is studying philosophy pointless? Does it make you pretentious?

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Photo by Janeb13 (from Pixabay)

In a previous post called Writing Exercises: A Book that Changed My Life, I talked about how Sophie’s World started my love for Philosophy. Now, let me begin by saying that I am by no means an expert on the subject matter. In fact, when we were studying the subject in college, I was a rather mediocre student. As was the case with Math and Physics, my love affair with Philosophy was very one-sided. But it’s a love of mine that’s endured the years, and one that I’m keen on nurturing and strengthening—occasionally through short courses but mostly through reading and listening to lectures and podcasts.

Now, over the years, I’ve noticed that Philosophy has a bit of a reputation problem. As a conversation topic, unless you’re surrounded by other enthusiasts, it’s bound to be a pretty quick stopper. People may nod or hmm politely, but it’s not very likely that you’d get any follow-up questions. Some people may even find the very word itself to be a bit of an internal ugh or eyeroll trigger. According to some friends, it’s just because philosophy is one of those things that are hard to get into. Some people find the subject inaccessible, boring, or even useless. Others have confessed to just finding people who talk about it really smug and annoying. And yes, the word pretentious did come up frequently and forcefully.

And honestly, I get it. I really do. People like what they like and are entitled to their opinions. I also see how philosophy isn’t exactly the most relatable or accessible, outwardly practical or interesting subject out there. In fact, a lot of philosophical texts are loaded with highfalutin words and stubbornly abstract concepts. I also get that some philosophy fans do come across as pretentious, arrogant, argumentative, and snooty know-it-alls. And hey, maybe some of them really are all those things and more. But what I’m really more interested in and concerned with are the harsh generalizations about the subject and its students that I’ve heard about or seen, (mostly online).

I think a lot of these misconceptions and generalizations stem from a misunderstanding of what philosophy is and what it’s used for. But before we get into the definition of philosophy and an enumeration of its uses, (things I’ll tackle in a separate post), I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on some of the criticisms levied against philosophy and its students.  Just my two cents, really.

  1. Not everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or intellectually arrogant. To say that everyone who studies philosophy is pretentious or an intellectual snob is a pretty heavy generalization. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m sure there are some philosophy students who think they are smarter than the average joe or jane, but that’s not an always and everybody case. In fact, some of the most low-key, quiet, and humble people I’ve met happen to be philosophy professors or graduates. Pretentiousness and intellectual snobbery occur in every possible realm of study where conflicting opinions could arise—which is basically everywhere and regarding everything these days. I believe that being pretentious or having a superiority complex is more of a personality thing than a byproduct of studying or loving a specific subject.

 

  1. Philosophy is only as boring as every other subject you can think of. The word boring is incredibly subjective. What’s boring to one person is another person’s passion. Philosophy isn’t and doesn’t have to be everyone’s cup of tea.

 

  1. Many philosophy books feel inaccessible with their highfalutin words and hard-to-understand concepts. But there’s a solution to that problem. I don’t know about other philosophy fans, but I find original texts (translated into English) hard to grasp at times. To make it easier to study a particular branch of philosophy, I usually take short online courses, read Introduction to Philosophy books, and listen to various lectures just to get a better grasp of what a particular philosopher is teaching. I also think that some texts are designed to be hard reads with circuitous verse or logic, (Plato, anyone?), because the writer wants you to really pause and digest what you’re reading. It’s healthy brain exercise.

 

  1. Yes, some philosophers and their students may seem bullheaded or argumentative at times, but the end goal isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to be proven right. A philosopher’s quest is always to get to the truth of a particular belief or statement. This is where the Socratic Method comes in. As you can tell from its name, the Socratic Method refers to the teaching technique used by Socrates. Unlike most of today’s instructors, Socrates didn’t teach via key points and definitions. Instead, he taught by asking a lot, and I mean a lot of questions. It was his way of seeking truth. Naturally, this method annoyed a lot of powerful people during Socrates’ time, which eventually and unfortunately earned the philosopher his death sentence. Philosophers are truth-seekers, and sometimes this means pitting their beliefs against the beliefs of others as a way to check the strength and verity of their assumptions. Sincere philosophers will welcome being proven wrong if it means bringing them closer to the truth.

 

  1. We are all philosophers, sort of. Okay, so maybe very few of us have published books or articles on philosophy, and even fewer have earned MAs and PHDs in the field. But if you closely examine the foundations of many of our beliefs and principles, a lot of them are rooted, (at least partially), in some ancient philosophical movement. For example, in his book How to Be a Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci points out the similarities between an Epictetus quote (Stoicism) and The Serenity Prayer. The Epictetus quote partially reads, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” Now, consider the start of The Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” See the similarities? This belief that we ought to recognize and focus our efforts on the areas that we can control is also one that transcends religion. It’s a nugget of wisdom that secularists also try to practice.

 

  1. Philosophy has a lot of practical everyday uses. Though it may not be as obviously practical as studying medicine or law, or any other empirical subject out here, Philosophy is NOT a useless endeavor. In fact, here’s a bit of trivia: Philosophy is the mother of all sciences. Modern science, as we know it, along with the study of logic (mathematics) and even language arose partially from the efforts of the ancient philosophers. So, that alone shows the importance of the subject. But what about its everyday uses? Well, from experience, studying the different branches of philosophy has made me more openminded and emphatic. I find that the more I study philosophy, the less inclined I am to make snap judgments about things and people. The discipline has also improved my critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving skills by pushing me to think logically and outside the box. And lastly and most importantly, it has inspired me to always try to do good by others. All fine things in my book.

A Return to Writing

A friend once told me, “Going back to writing is like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it. Just get back on that seat and practice.” Interestingly enough, that’s what people tell me about driving too. Writing, driving, and riding a bike—the three activities that bring me the most dread these days.

See, at some point last year, I made the crazy decision to take a year-long hiatus from writing. It was roughly around the same time I stopped driving, learned how to ride a bike, and just as quickly unlearned that skill. I took a break from writing to put all my focus on planning my wedding. As for driving, well, stopping wasn’t a conscious choice. It just so happens that everything I need is within walking distance. Plus, I work from home. Taking all things into consideration, this place is the lazy man’s paradise or the consumerist’s version of heaven. You take your pick. And riding a bike? That’s always been more my husband’s interest than mine.

Now, out of those three life skills, writing was the one I felt I wouldn’t have problems going back to. See, I love writing. It’s something that comes naturally to me, or at least it used to. Writing was more than my bread and butter, it was the way I made sense of the world and everything going on around me. It allowed me to reexamine life and put words behind thoughts and emotions that I couldn’t readily express verbally.

To quote Anaïs Nin, “We write to taste life twice; in the moment and in retrospect.” And isn’t every experience bigger—whether for the worse or for the better—in retrospect? To put it in productivity terms, writing was my area and moment of “flow.” I was never a brilliant writer, but what I lacked in technical skill, I made up for in enthusiasm and drive. It’s the incessant pull of es muss sein that can’t be quieted until everything that needs to be written has been expunged. Writing was my lifeline. And for a very long time, Writer was the fulcrum of my identity.

So, as you can imagine, it came as a nasty surprise that returning to writing—especially for pleasure—wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought it would be. I can’t seem to get through one sentence without self-doubt creeping in. Rust has settled in, crusting over that old enthusiasm I used to rely on. The interest is there, the pull is there, but the execution is proving to be agonizing and sloppy. But giving up is not an option. To stop writing forever? That would be my personal hell.

And so, here we are. Tabula rasa. I’ll write. I will chip away at the crust and the rust, fake that old fervor until the upswing of that fever comes to consume me. I will go wherever my writing takes me. And maybe, in conquering this fear of writing, the lever will pivot and I’ll also drive and ride a bike once more.

Choosing Happiness: Are You a Maximizer or a Satisficer?

A couple of months ago, I hit a slump—and I mean, I really hit it. Creatively, physically, socially, emotionally, financially, and mentally. Pretty much any other word you can append a –ly to. Ecumenically. As far as winters of discontent go, this one was admittedly pretty middling, but harsh enough to warrant a bit of sunshine. So, out went one of my favorite summer self-improvement reads, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

Now, one of the things I love about The Happiness Project is that despite having the word Happiness right-smack in the middle of its title, it’s not an overly sentimental, leap-of-faith, and hokey-ish kind of read. In fact, Rubin spends quite a lot of time citing different studies from psychologists, anthropologists, neurologists, philosophers, and other health and happiness experts. She looks at happiness as something attainable, something you can work towards through a series of actionable items. And I like that. During moments when it feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, I need to know that I can still bring my own lamp—light my own way.

So, while I’m in the process of sifting through muck, I wanted to share my thoughts about some of the ideas I’m currently reading about. For today, we’re taking a look at how a person’s decision-making process affects his or her happiness.

Maximizers and Satisficers: A Definition of Terms

One of my favorite ideas from The Happiness Project is something that Rubin picked up from the American psychologist, Barry Schwartz. In Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, he discusses how being faced with so many options can cause us anxiety, stress, and even analysis paralysis. He talks about two distinct types of shoppers—the maximizer and the satisficer.

Now, in the world of economics, it is assumed that buyers are geared towards availing of the best services and products available. Maximizers fit this assumption perfectly. The maximizer is the type of shopper who wants to make the best and the most informed decisions at all times. Even when faced with a product or service that ticks all the boxes, the maximizer won’t be able to make up his or her mind until all options have been examined or exhausted.

For the maximizer, there is always this nagging feeling that something better might be out there. In a way, you can say that maximizers are the consummate perfectionists of the buying world. The maximizer will not settle for anything less than the best. Now, according to an article from Psychology Today, the upside to not settling is that “overall, maximizers achieve better outcomes than satisficers.”

In a 2012 study from Swarthmore College, it was discovered that recent graduates with maximizing tendencies ended up accepting jobs with starting salaries that were up to 20% higher than their satisficing counterparts. However, despite earning more than their peers, the perfectionist aspect of the maximizers still had these graduates second-guessing their decisions. They were still asking themselves, “What if there’s a better option out there?” They were more prone to comparing themselves to others as a way of gauging whether or not they’ve ended up with the best possible outcome.

See, the main downside to being a maximizer is that you’re less certain about the choices you make. This makes a maximizing shopper more prone to disappointment and buyer’s remorse, which in turn lessens his or her happiness levels.

And happiness is where satisficers earn a leg up over their maximizing peers. See, unlike the maximizer and his/her sky-high expectations, satisficers tend to live by a more modest criteria. Don’t get me wrong, the satisficing customer isn’t about to settle for anything less than what he/she originally wanted, but once a product or a service meets the shopper’s requirements, he/she will have no qualms making a decision. And unlike the maximizer, the satisficer stops looking for other options, thereby inoculating him/her against buyer’s remorse.

This is the point that Barry Schwartz makes in The Paradox of Choice. Satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers because they’re perfectly content with “good enough.” They don’t agonize as much over their decisions; and if you think about it, that’s really not a bad way to go through life.

So, are you a Satisficer, a Maximizer, or are you a mix of both?

Now, the beauty of learning about these tendencies is that it lets us take a step back to evaluate what’s important to us and what works for us. Both shopping personalities offer great advantages. Some people are perfectly happy being maximizers, while others swear by their satisficing tendencies. Others still, are a mix of both. They’re maximizers when it comes to certain areas in their lives and satisficers in other areas.

So, which type are you? If you’re unsure about which category you fall under, here’s a Maximizer vs Satisficer Quiz from Psychologist World. Me, I’m 65% a satisficer and 35% a maximizer. How about you?

Women in Literature: Five Writers Who Have Helped Shape My Identity

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Today is International Women’s Day—a day to commemorate the social, political, cultural, and economic contributions of women throughout history. To celebrate this beautiful event, I’ve decided to share the five writers whose works have helped shape me into becoming the woman I am today.

In Kate Bolick’s seminal piece, Spinster, she borrows the term ‘awakeners’ from Edith Wharton to describe the five historical and literary figures who, through their works, have become her boon companions for life. The following women serve as my constant companions, my top five personal awakeners.

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Free Verse: Letter to Sylvia – by Kristel Marie Pujanes

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An Open Letter to Sylvia Plath – by Kristel Marie Pujanes

I

 

Sylvia, dear Sylvia,

Where do you hide?

I have rifled through the leaves of your memory,

Hunting down words, unearthing

Your anagrams, the loose codes

Of your alliterations, mounting the apex

Of your imagination. Thumbing through

Text, I have expanded my parentheses;

Cut thumbs with metaphors—

Bled disappearing ink: written letters

You’ll never receive. I’ve buried

Each and every note—under

Beds, under stairs, under stars,

I have hallooed the Sandman and sent

My regards. And still,

Your meaning eludes me.

 

II

 

Sylvia, dear Sylvia,

Where do you hide?

I have sought for your person

In every sylph of a woman,

Every self of a child.

I have scoured through

Each and every disguise.

Now every intersection is another dimension

Where they say you’ve lived,

Where they say you’ll die. Over

And over again.

I refuse their ill substance,

Their ill-timed lies: yours is a truth that cannot die.

It becomes the valley, the trenches, the sky.

And the tree that knows

Every spectrum of color, every pulse of light.

 

III

 

Sylvia, dear Sylvia,

Why must you hide?

I have grown grey traversing

the avenues of your memory,

the grand maze of your mind.

I have chased your shadow

For miles and miles. Seeking your tone

In every conversation that starts with “I…”

Or every phrase that ends with “wither,” or

“pure,” or “white.”

The years thin over time.

I tire of this barren pursuit. Crouched:

I grow cold for your solitary moon—

Your solid weight. Your promised effacement,

The delivery of my child, my fate.

And still I wait. 

 

 

Free Verse: I Have Rebuilt A Mind.

 

I have rebuilt a mind.

I built it overnight.

I have torn off its foundation by hand,

One concrete slab at a time.

(To reveal the fertile soil of the unlearned mind.)

I have worked away at its pillars:

Outdated notions, antiquated philosophies

I have granted it new memories.

Knee-deep in rubble,

I have rediscovered its purity.

In the course of this renovation,

I have sunk lofty ceilings, ripped apart awnings;

I have stripped the walls bare

Of all thoughts and feelings. Until naked,

The house folds neat in a pile by my feet.

And when all that’s left is but empty land,

I plant in it the seed of faith

And introduce a weed called doubt.

I watch the two grow and intertwine,

To produce the purest, brightest mind.

By: Kristel Marie Pujanes (7/30/2012)

Image: A Cottage in a Cornfield. John Constable (1817)

Free Verse #1: Rest. For Eve

REST. FOR EVE.

By: Kristel Marie Pujanes

Into the garden I’ve gone to weep,

your grief, though appreciated

is temporary and weak. You

who have not known nakedness,

(your fineries, your firm flesh!)

can’t possibly know the permanence of despair.

I, on the other hand, speak it regularly.

It is my mother tongue—it is

the twin of my pulse that beats regret.

Here is your apple, Serpent,

Take it. I have no use for it.

Bring with it my memories, my poised potential.

You see, I have no taste for its wisdom,

its poison, its promises.

I reject it to be pure again—clean

like bone and porcelain.

As for you, God, hidden in the wings,

Here, take a rib—bring it to Adam

(an offering, a gift!)

Let it descend upon his mantelpiece,

a sorry show for guests and thieves.

They will crowd around it, of course.

Open their mouths, talk about it,

of course. Chew it like the third course.

Digest it, revel in it, and forget about it

Of course, of course.

Into the garden to shed my skin—

this coat is ruined, worn, and thin.

As the cool ground rises to meet my form,

To be one with earth, forevermore.

(5.19.2012)

 

NOTE: Written after a two-year hiatus from writing poetry.

IMAGE: Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio (fresco from c. 1425)