Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Certain Sportive Dimension

Philosophy ... is not the Universe, it is not even that close trafficking with the Universe which we call living. We are not going to live things, but simply to theorize about them, to contemplate them. And to contemplate a thing implies maintaining oneself outside of it, resolved to keep a chaste distance between it and ourselves. We are attempting a theory, or what is the same thing, a system of concepts about the Universe. No less, but also no more. To find those concepts which, when set in a certain order, allow us to say how much it seems to us there is, or what the Universe is. We are not attempting anything tremendous. Although philosophic problems, being fundamental, have about them something of pathos, philosophy itself is not pathetic. It is more like a pleasant exercise, a favorite occupation. It is simply a matter of marrying our concepts one with another, like pieces in a picture puzzle. I would rather put it this way than to recommend philosophy with qualifications full of solemnity. Like all great human undertakings, it has a certain sportive dimension, and out of this it keeps a clean humor and a rigorous care. --Ortega y Gasset, What Is Philosophy?

Philosophers are often taken too seriously by non-philosophers. This is why philosophy is often mocked, called worthless, impractical, and a waste of time. People disparage philosophy for these qualities and hope to get a rise out of philosophers because they believe that philosophers hold that the opposite is true: that philosophy is serious, immensely important, practical, and necessary. But here is where non-philosopher shows his ignorance of philosophy. What is most delightful about philosophy, what delights me still, is its playfulness, its zest, its naivete, its humor. To read philosophy--good philosophy--is to release the mind as if it were a trout into a mountain stream. A trout knows nothing of importance. It is all power and finesse, plunges and lines of flight. Philosophy reminds us of the extraordinary fact that we have minds, and that these minds can be put into what Ortega y Gasset calls in the passage above "a certain sportive dimension."


Runners are familiar with this dimension. It is gained for them through similar processes. What running gives the runner is a sense of distance. It opens up a sportive dimension in a life that sometimes gets too meaningful. Life presses in on us with responsibilities, cares, concerns, and it is good to attend to these. But without spaces of meaninglessness, spaces where not much matters, these meanings can tend to congeal around us, so that instead of being able to act as free agents, tending to our responsibilities as they come to life around us, we find ourselves plied and trapped by pressures, living lives that do not feel as if they are our own, each moment fraught with consequences, and so on. In such moments, life offers no distance, only scurrying, pleading, placating, a suffocating inundation of experience.

The sportive dimension can cure us from the press of life, but only indirectly. It takes a kind of Hegelian aufhebung. There is nothing worse than a serious philosopher. There are few kinds of people more annoying than the self-important runner. I should know. I've dabbled in these identities. No--it is the play that gives these activities their value, and play cannot be taken seriously. It cannot even be valued for its distance-creating effects. It's only when we let the mind go, when the body begins to move of its own accord, that the distance opens and we get a little purchase on life. Follow the trout as it swims, and it will take you places you did not know you had. You will find your mind to be stranger, larger, weirder, and more full of possibilities: expanding into the sportive dimension.

And this is how I felt on return from my run today as well. I braced myself as I headed out the door into the 12 degree air. My legs were tired from last evening's run, and the cold stung my cheeks. Ah, but I was a kind of tingling bullet as I roamed the Nashville streets, so much sensation, so much aliveness. There it was, again, life from a distance, reconsidered. Less meaningful and larger.



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