"Running is a simple sport. You don't need all the zoopy-zoop." --Bill Squires
The aim of my class is almost entirely opposite. A philosophy class is successful when after a semester's work, the student feels less knowledgeable, less sure of himself and of his capabilities. Uncertain of himself and even his most precious values. Sure, philosophy has a set of knowledge and skills--certainly we have terminology and methods of inquiry and a history of the discipline, etc. But fundamentally philosophy is an attempt to see things freshly, and the main impediment to seeing freshly is the assurance of certainty. It's for this reason that philosophers hold up Socrates as their hero. He was a genius of ignorance; a philosopher.
So, I tell these students that in their academic careers philosophy will be an exception. For the vast majority of their time at the university, they will be gaining knowledge, skills, and habits that will be invaluable in their lives. But, for the three hours a week you are subject to philosophy, you will leave behind this noble and useful task of learning and try your best to do some unlearning.
I justify these three hours by making a distinction between wisdom and knowledge and saying we are after wisdom. But if you've spent much time with philosophy, you know that the idea of wisdom is really an embarrassment for philosophers. First of all, who knows what it means? It's vague and wishy-washy and pretentious to even assume that one might have it, much less teach it. Second, have you ever met a philosopher in real life? Usually not the paragon of wisdom. Third, shouldn't wisdom and knowledge go hand in hand?
But really it is precisely these embarrassing aspects of the idea of wisdom that make it such a useful tool. Philosophers appear to be unwise--even are unwise--precisely because they are busy making experiments into different forms of wisdom. Imagine taking experimentation so seriously, that you model your life after it--instead of, say, a set of rules or principles or commandments. This is a huge risk: to live your life as if you do not know its purpose or meaning. This is the atmosphere of philosophy.
Really, this atmosphere shouldn't be so hard to imagine. Everything we do is a quite radical experiment, even if we rarely reflect on this fact. Getting married, committing to a career, having children, buying a house--each of these decisions are made without full knowledge of their consequences. Every commitment we choose butchers a thousand other possibilities, murders a host of unlived lives, some of which might have turned out better. Indeed, what gives a choice its character as a commitment is the very fact that it might lead to failure. Commitment to a sure thing is no commitment at all. We hold these various experiments into life together with guts, elbow grease, and lots of help from family and friends--and yes, even occasionally some knowledge. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, things fall apart.
To take up philosophy is to affirm this precarious and experimental nature of life. It tries to practice living with the fact that we don't know. Embracing that ignorance and affirming its connection to wisdom may allow for unimagined successes, even if it is also sure to bring unanticipated failures.
The famous marathon coach Renato Canova describes the value of that affirmation for runners in the June issue of Running Times. "I think, in past, coaching may have been [a] big limiting factor on runners," he told Scott Douglas. "When I was national coach of Italy, we measured everything. We had a very precise idea of controlling everything. I think this created limits for athletes in their minds. What is better, athletes and coaches must have the mentality of explorers, so that you can overtake your limitations. You take one step into the darkness. If it's a mistake, you step back. If not a mistake, step again. Only in this way can you increase your knowledge.
"I think this is true not just of marathoning, but for every situation in life, no?"
Sometimes the primary impediment to wisdom is all the zoopy-zoop that allows us to forget that we don't know. Philosophy looks past the zoopy-zoop to the simple darkness that lies at the horizon of every life. It reminds us that there is always some darkness into which we might step, and in its best moments, it gives us the courage to actually take that step.
In a life that is fundamentally uncertain, confusion and hesitation is the mark of honesty and deep insight, not a sign of weakness. The best coaches and athletes never eliminate uncertainty from their training. The small miracle is that they train with great passion, full vigor, and deep attention, despite the fact that in every experiment failure will eventually come. Life is a simple sport; it leads onwards, ever, into the darkness.