It seems like abstract ideas don’t matter, and directly, they often don’t. Does your view of justice change what kind of bread you buy at the store? Not usually. Does grasping the nuance of Deleuze change what time you get up and go to work? No. So what’s the point of struggling through philosophy, sociology, theology, or any of those weird abstract fields. It’s just something to do, right? Entertainment.
Let’s say you need glasses. Is it practical for you to wear them? Absolutely: glasses pretty much make all practice possible; it would be hard to walk to the fridge without them. Glasses won’t help you lift a box onto a shelf directly, but indirectly, they are absolutely essential. If you can’t see the box, you can’t pick it up, and if you can’t see clearly, you may place it on the shelf where it can tip over and break everything inside. The glasses are essential and yet are so essential they don’t seem necessary at all. Only when they were gone would you fully realize how important they are, like that doorknob Heidegger tells us we don’t notice until it’s broken.
The more you use something, the more likely it is to become “invisible” to you. Paradoxically, the more something is practically important, the more it can seem like it’s not practically important at all. Wondering if something’s important can strangely be a sign that it’s ultra-important (though not necessarily). Ideas are like air, and you do need them like someone who needs glasses, because without them you wouldn’t function. But which ideas? Which glasses? That’s the hard part…
All practice is through ideas; if your brain was entirely off, you couldn’t function. Ideas are lenses; they shape your orientation to the world. They matter so much that they don’t seem like they matter at all. (They’re matters of “high order complexity” to humans with brains that really only grasp “low order complexity,” as discussed in “Experiencing Thinking,” but you don’t need to understand that here.)
Reading Hume won’t directly help you get a job, but it may influence you to act humbler on the job, which perhaps will help people like you. Jane Austen doesn’t till your garden, but she may help you develop empathy and appreciate the small things in life. You can’t quench your thirst with Dostoevsky, but you can through him gain a sense of what your son is thinking in his struggles to square belief in God with the evils of the world. This might help you form a connection with your son that saves the overall relationship. And if you’re son doesn’t like you, practical stuff may just lose its luster…
What makes ideas seem like they aren’t important is one because you see through them versus use them — you “use them to use,” per se — and also because you can’t say for sure what ideas will be used for when you learn them. When I wrote “On Worry,” I was just trying to figure out what made “worry” distinct from “care” — my goal was to describe and solve a problem, not to build a tool — but I’ve found over the years that the paper has been extremely useful for navigating relationships. No, not directly, but certainly indirectly. The same goes with “The Metamental and the Dismodern Self” — I wrote it trying to describe something I saw going on the world, not even asking myself if the ideas were practical, and yet I’ve found myself remembering to avoid “metamental thinking” since I wrote that paper which has been great for my mental health. Even my strangest paper, “A is A,” has influenced my orientation to the world and helped me understand Economics, Sociology, and other fields through different eyes. In a weird way, “A is A” is both my most useless paper and most useful.
None of us can be certain about which ideas are going to be useful ahead of time, so it’s important that we’re open to ideas. For this reason, if a thought springs into our minds, we should take the time to develop it. Maybe not weeks, but certainly we can spare ten minutes. No, ideas like “metamentally” won’t help me put a box on a shelf directly, but it might help me notice that I’m driving myself crazy wondering what other people are thinking while lifting the box. If I don’t notice “metamentally” or know what to do with it, I might get frustrated and stop organizing the garage, which is a very real, tangible, and practical consequence.
It’s dangerous to worry too much ahead of time how an idea will be “useful” and to decide if you’ll pursue it based on if it’s practical or not. That’s not something we can know for sure, so if an idea hits you and you have reason to think it might be true, pursue it. Let the question “Is it true?” be your guide more than “Is it practical?”, though by all means ask “Is it practical?” along the way. Abstract thinking needs checks and balances, but practicality shouldn’t have the deciding vote at the start of the discussion. It necessitates an impossible certainty and is ignorantly arrogant.
None of us know which ideas will change the world; not even Jesus really changed the world at the time of his life. He changed a relatively small group, but after Easter, things changed. Thinking in terms like “Does this idea matter?”, “Will this change people?”, and “Will this change the world?” — though all good questions for helping keep us grounded — can also be problematic, because the answers to these questions are ultimately unknowable. And these questions can make you stop when you very well shouldn’t (it can’t be said either way). A very serious attempt should be in order, but often questions on practicality stop people from moving forward before the attempt is even started.
What you can’t know for certain is important often feels like it’s not important, so you’re pretty much set up from the start if you ask questions about practicality to conclude that the ideas in your head or that you’re interested in learning about don’t matter and to give them up. Knowing this can help you overcome the feeling of wasting your time in considering an idea.
Wittgenstein once warned against our tendency to ‘wrongly expect an explanation, whereas the solution of the difficulty [can be] a description.’ When we work out an idea, it often creates a description of the world, not just an explanation. Descriptions don’t seem practical, but when you live your life and know what you’re looking at, that helps you know what to do. If you are able to recognize in a situation the use of “metamentality,” and also know that “metamentality” must be discarded outright, you’ll know what needs to be done in a situation versus stand there paralyzed. By doing the idea-work ahead of time, you’ll be prepared. The same can said if your daughter tells you to stop being worried about her talking on her phone while driving a car: by understanding the difference between “worry” and “care,” you won’t be caught off guard by her claim (to which you might otherwise respond with an eruption of anger or freeze up).
Ideas are not practical, but the ideas you believe entail practical consequences. Yet these consequences are often “high order” and hard to pin down but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It may seem like ideas don’t matter, but if an idea matters to you, that’s “reason to think” it will matter to others, even though the consequences are ultimately unknowable. Everyone who works on a new novel, idea, etc. wonders if it will be a valuable use of their time and if it will make real consequences. But if you say with certainty that “it won’t be,” you have assumed you know something that you don’t, meaning you have abandoned epistemic humility (even though in other situations you might be notably humble). Have a little more faith — it’s practical if picking out a new pair of glasses can be practical.
Again, it’s dangerous to pre-judge that ideas won’t be useful and so decide not to think about them. Even someone who is normally intellectually humble can be quick to judge that an idea doesn’t matter if it doesn’t seem tangible. And maybe the idea ultimately isn’t practical, but don’t be quick to assume that: just because you can’t see how an idea matters now doesn’t mean it will never matter. Take the Space Program: who could have guessed all the technologies we’d discover through that? So it goes with ideas: who knew “On Worry” would impact how I acted in the world so much?
If someone would have asked for proof at the time of its conception that “On Worry” would practically matter, I could have never provided it. And now, if someone wants me to prove to them that the paper entailed practical consequences for me, I couldn’t prove that either. The proof is in the living, and only I can live my life through my ideas. I can tell them the paper has practically mattered to me and tell them they should read it for that reason, but they will always have room to doubt it. After all, ideas don’t take the form of boxes on shelves: if I tell someone I moved the box, they can see it; if I tell them that “On Worry” helped me avoid anxiety, they can chalk it up to my personality. But remember, though ideas themselves leave behind no tangible evidence, they are through what all tangible evidence is understood and through what all evidence is created.
For people to say “ideas are impractical” is like someone saying “glasses don’t matter” while wearing a pair. The problem is that ideas don’t feel like they matter because they don’t directly matter, just like glasses don’t seem like they matter because we can forget we’re wearing them. But glasses are incredibly practical: just see what happens when you throw your pair away.