Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Philosophy, Running, and Life Beyond Justification

The question "what is philosophy?" is perhaps most expressive of the temperament and ambitions of philosophers. We are simultaneously proud of our ability to ask this question and ashamed that we have to ask it. We are proud of the question because it shows that we take critical inquiry so seriously that we apply it even to the very task of critical inquiry. And we are ashamed of the question because it implies that we don't really know what the heck we are doing, that philosophy is simply an expression of confusion. Which, of course, it is.

Like most questions, this one has many different answers. Speaking personally, I love reading and engaging in philosophy because it gives me a chance to think newly and differently. So, I tend to think of the task of philosophy as primarily imaginative and speculative. My favorite philosophers challenge ordinary ways of seeing, and give us new ways of approaching problems. This has probably been apparent in my writings on this blog.

The view that philosophy is about argumentative justification is more common among professional philosophers. This mode of philosophy is also creative, but it puts a higher value on conceptual clarity and argumentative rigor. It sees philosophy as an attempt to justify the way we think about things through clear argumentation and reason giving.

Obviously, good thinking requires both clear-headed and rigorous exchange of reasons as well as creative insight and intuition. In the very best philosophers profound and world-altering insights are delivered in a clear and graceful style that does not shirk the work of justification (Plato, Descartes, Rousseau, and Nietzsche come to mind as exemplary in terms of balancing creativity and argumentative rigor.) But most of us workaday philosophers tend to err on one side or the other -- so much so, in fact that intradisciplinary squabbles about which is the "real" or "true" form of philosophy occupy too much philosophical bandwidth. (Ah, but we love that question, "what is philosophy?" AND, even more, we love to argue!)

All of this is familiar and not too insightful, I imagine, for professional philosophers. These squabbles over the meaning and most basic values of philosophy have a long history and are also influenced by forces from outside philosophy -- i.e. the prestige and influence of math and science, and the more general ways that academics have to justify their own funding, etc. These are larger topics for a different audience.

At any rate, I was prompted to return to these questions on the nature of philosophy and what it might have to do with running when I ran across this advertisement for a conference on the philosophy of running and realized that I hardly wrote about any of the questions that they briefly posed.

Why run? How would I reply to this? Does my running require justification? Well, sometimes it does -- like when I should be doing something else.

What sort of value does running have? Here we get into the reasons for the first question -- Enjoyment comes to mind, first. Psychological stability. Health. Friendship. And then vaguer and more suspicious reasons: control, competitiveness, obsessiveness. Most of the value that running has is directly individual, but there are also community aspects: the race, the friends, even the simple act of being out in public spaces and on sidewalks seems to me to have social/political implications.

What does running tell us about intentions and effort? There are fascinating crannies to explore here. Marathon training and racing is an ongoing lesson in the limits of intentionality and goal setting. And runners are connoisseurs of effort--one of the great pleasures of running is in sampling different efforts and playing with them, as if the body were wine, and we were tasters!

What is philosophically distinctive about running? There is a lot to say here (this topic needs its own blog post), but I think the answer boils down to the fact that running is a freely chosen activity. I think for this reason, we see running as something we are -- we are runners -- rather than something we simply do. We don't run out of necessity, and running is not useful, and yet we choose it anyways.

This takes us back to the first question. What exactly is philosophical inquiry? I think it is best expressed as freedom of thought. This freedom forces certain responsibilities--that we practice it well, that we do it clearly, and that we respect the rights of others to think. But thinking is also like running. There is a dimension of the pure freedom of thought that pushes beyond justification, responsibility, necessity, and usefulness. To my mind, it's this dimension of thought -- a dimension that is itself exceedingly difficult and rewarding to think -- that we indicate by the concept of philosophy. We know we are in a philosophical dimension when our thoughts get confused and jumbled, but also appear new and alien.

Perhaps thinking philosophically and running are analogous activities. Though they each have positive and useful effects, they are activities that are not primarily useful and resist justification. But we choose them anyways, quite freely, despite their dubious use-value, and perhaps in doing so express something about the nature of human freedom. When Socrates said that "The unexamined life is not worth living," he drew a straight line connecting free inquiry and the value of life itself. But there is a subtler thought there as well. If the value of life is in the inquiry, it is also in the part of life that is not yet settled, not yet justified, still to be explored, not quite determined.

Time for a run.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On Running and Habit

"The greatest thing, in all education, is to make the nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. ... For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague." --William James, Principles of Psychology, "Habit"


Runners are creatures of habit. What looks like tremendous willpower to the non-runner is (we secretly know) simply routine for us. We get ourselves caught up in the rhythm of training, and all of the habits we have set up carry us almost inexorably towards our goals. The difficulty of training is always only beginning and maintaining -- once we are out the door, we are guided by habit. In this sense, habit is the runner's best friend, especially as we embark on a project toward goals. To become a runner means establishing habits.

On the other hand, habit is the runner's worst enemy. Most of the adult runners that I work with in training share a problem that I have -- which is that we get stuck in certain habits as a runner. These habits can be mental habits: such as setting too ambitious race or training goals, getting too excited when workouts go well (or too upset when they go poorly), reducing all the various purposes of training to "mileage," or obsessing too much about the details of training. The habits are also physical: we return to the same workouts, month after month, year after year, forgetful of the fact that teaching the body to grow in new ways means that we must train not just harder, but differently!

Running well requires a routine. As James reminds us--as the Stoics did long before him--the most necessary thing in life is to develop good unconscious habits so that we don't waste mental energy or willpower on basic things. I firmly believe that the most important workout we do is the simple easy run that we do almost unconsciously every day. That run establishes the routine that makes you into a runner.

But within that routine, we need variation. Not everything can be unconscious. The way to reach your potential as a runner is to think as clearly as you can about your own strengths and weaknesses as a runner and then work specifically and purposefully over a period of months to address those strengths and weaknesses. Yes, this means changing our habits and making them better. Those could be mental habits (like goal setting, controlling your reaction to workouts, racing more confidently, or believing that you can race well without training at the absolute limit) or they could be physiological habits (like developing speed, form issues, handling a certain mileage level without breaking down, etc.)

The deep philosophical point that James is driving at is that we are creatures of habit. Which means that we are always in danger of becoming mere automatons, driven by our habits. The only way to resist that fate is to create the habit of refreshing, renewing, and critically examining our habits. We need to be creatures of good habits. This is especially the case for older, adult runners who have been at this gig for a while.

Routine is not a bad thing in itself, just as habits are not always bad. Willpower is in short supply; it has its limits, which is why we need habit. The essential thing in intelligent training is to set up a habit of reflecting on your own habits as a runner. Else, you risk getting caught up in the cycle of suffering.

Establishing good habits as runners doesn't mean we won't hit injuries or setbacks or just simply get tired of running and move onto different things. Intelligence has its limits, and sometimes we don't even know what habits we need to improve. The most important habit of all may be the habit of remembering that we run for enjoyment -- which seems to me to be something entirely unlike "habit" or "intelligence" or "will power" or "purpose." So, if you are someone who thinks about your habits all the time, may this post cause you to examine the value of that very habit!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Paul Ryan's Marathon Lie -- Should We Care?

This blog is predicated on the idea that there is some bleed-over between the values and practices of running and the values and practices of life. This bleed-over has now caught the nation's attention with the whole Paul Ryan marathon controversy. Even Nobel-Laureate and (let's face it) Democratic party shill Paul Krugman, who I doubt has much experience with running, has weighed in with his opinion.

All of my readers will be familiar by now with Paul Ryan's lopping an hour off of his marathon time. Runners don't like this, especially because Ryan laid claim to the holy grail of recreational running -- the three hour marathon. We know what it takes to run under three hours in the marathon. It's a pretty sacred line to cross as flippantly as Ryan did.

Whether Ryan was oblivious to the sacredness of that line or whether he chose to say he ran in the 2:50s because of that sacredness is something we will never know for sure.

But here's the question that's been nagging at me about this whole thing. There seems to me to be something false about the attempt to deduce a larger claim about Ryan's propensity to the truth in general from this simple statement. Is Ryan's statement a window into his soul or not? Krugman seems to think it is. I am less sure about that.

I've been around enough runners and competitive athletes to want to give Ryan the benefit of the doubt. There is something about overly competitive male individuals (and Ryan does seem to be one of these) that makes them go literally insane when sports are discussed -- much less competed in. I've known many a mild-mannered conscientious dude in ordinary life, who when put into a competitive situation becomes a strange kind of monster, willing to do pretty much anything to WIN. It seems to me that in most cases this sort of character flaw (and it is a flaw, and an odious one) seems to be isolated to the game or sport situation.

Perhaps the classic example of this is John McEnroe. As a sports announcer, the guy is witty, intelligent, nuanced, funny. As an athlete, he was a first class a-hole.

I spoke about this in my last post on Lance Armstrong. For the most part, it's best to keep the lines between sport and life as clear as possible. When they get muddied up all sorts of bad things happen. We start imagining life as a sort of competitive game about accumulating points. And, from the other side, we tend to idolize and hold up athletes as paragons of human behavior. Neither of these ways of thinking are wise.

So, on behalf of the sport/life distinction, I am going to give Ryan a pass on this one as a politician and as a human being. The athlete in me is still pissed that Ryan even considers associating himself with those who take the 3 hour marathon seriously and wonders a bit about his claim to have ascended forty 14ers in Colorado.

But is Ryan a "liar" now? Naw. I'm not ready to go there. I just wouldn't want to play ping-pong with the guy.
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