quote of the week

Couldn’t sleep the other night and watched Examined Life, a film about philosophy. Half of the philosophers interviewed in the film were predictably obtuse and stiff as philosophers often are, but the other half all said things that shook me up and rattled my mind.

I’d heard of Cornell West before, but honestly didn’t think much of him from the sound bytes I’d seen (and his involvement with the philosophically muddy Matrix trilogy). But he offered this impromptu monologue in the back seat of a cab and it blew me away. Not just for his eloquence and presence, but for how easy it was for him to clearly make complex points:

It takes tremendous discipline, tremendous courage to think for yourself.  W.B. Yeats said ‘It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.’  Courage to think critically. Courage is the enabling virtue for any philosopher, for an human being. Courage to think. Courage to love. Courage to hope.

[I think of] truth as a way of life, as opposed to a set of propositions that correspond to things in the world. Human beings are unable to ever gain any monopoly on Truth (capital T), we might have access to truth (little t), but they are fallible claims about truth and they could be wrong, and open to revision and so on. So there is a certain kind of mystery that goes hand in hand with truth. This is why so many existential thinkers whether they be religious or secular… have worked to accent our finitude and our inability to fully grasp the ultimate nature of reality and truth about things. And therefore you talk about truth being tied to the way to truth, because once you give up on the notion of fully grasping the way the world is you’re gonna talk about what are the ways I can sustain my quest for truth. How do you sustain a journey, a path, toward truth? The way to truth? The truth talk goes hand in hand with talk about the way to truth.

And scientists can talk about this in terms of producing evidence or reliable conclusions. Religious folks can talk about this in terms of surrendering ones arrogance and pride in the face of divine revelation and what have you, but they’re all ways of acknowledging our finitude. Our fallibility.

8 Responses to “quote of the week”

  1. Baron

    I enjoyed this movie very much.

    The thing that struck me about Dr. West’s structural cab ride was the passion and fluency he exhibited when talking about the ideas. I had only heard him previously when speaking of race or related topics, where his passion served only to obscure the message; here it was contagious.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Baron: Indeed – thx for the comment (and good to meet u at Socrates Cafe).

      I remember now I’ve heard him (west) a few times on the Tavis Smiley show, a show I don’t like much, but it’s on NPR sometimes so I listen to it without thinking about it. And every time he’s on I feel like the two of them have the same exact boring predictable conversation. I chalk this up more to Smiley, who is, bland and predictable, than to West, but since that’s mostly where I’ve heard him, that was the impression I had.

  2. Jason Crawford

    It does take courage to think for yourself–to do so consistently and on principle. As an Objectivist, though, I subscribe to the plain old correspondence theory of truth. An idea is true if it corresponds to reality.

    Sure, we can’t know everything. But we *can* know *something*. Omniscience vs. total ignorance/skepticism is a false dichotomy. We do know things–as babies, only what is in front of us; as teenagers, less than we think; in old age, hopefully quite a lot. Learning is a neverending process, but it isn’t futile.

    Also true that no one has a monopoly on truth–which is why we *have* to think for ourselves. I see that as the difference between science and religion: Religion says the church or the Pope is the authority, or if not, then you have to hope that God is talking to you directly via your feelings or intuitions. Science says that there is no authority, and we know reality through observation. So I wouldn’t put those two in the same camp–they’re not compatible.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment Jason.

      It’s worth noting that putting all religion into one pile is an oversimplification – not that you’re wrong, but I bet the nuances of what kinds of religion you are criticizing is worth investigating. For example, some of the founding fathers of the U.S. were likely Diests (Voltaire and some key Enlightment thinkers definitely were). Diests believe there is a god, but that any convention religion may or may not have any connection to it. Some Diests believe that god is unknowable, or completely uninvolved with our existence, concepts that don’t fit into how you have compressed all of religion down into one simple idea. Even within any major religion there are so many sub sects, and sub-views, that it’s hard to study the subject and keep it tied up together in one bundle.

      Even so, I take West’s point as valid. That even if flawed, much of religion and science are attempts to give us tools for how to deal with the fact we cannot ever know Truth. They might be questionable tools, or varying in usefulness, but I take West’s point to be that the goal of the tools is similiar.

  3. Jason Crawford

    Thanks, Scott. I don’t want to oversimplify, and you’re right that religion can be an attempt to reach an understanding of the world.

    My view on religion is that it’s fundamentally a matter of faith, but that different sects and variants throughout the ages have had different mixtures of faith and reason. The deism of the 18th century had a large component of reason. The neo-Platonic Christianity of Augustine had virtually none (I believe Augustine called reason “the lust of the eyes”). So it’s a matter of whether you’re looking at the essence of religion (vs. secularism and science), or at one of its incarnations.

    But I think the deeper point in this discussion is whether we can know the truth–any truth, any part of reality (granting that we don’t, can’t, and never will know everything). I hold that we can know truth–in fact, I’d say that’s self-evident, even axiomatic, and that to deny the point is self-defeating.



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