A Short Piece on “Compelling” by O.G. Rose

We Must Begin Somewhere

A reason philosophy matters is because it trains us to choose our default positions versus just absorb them.

Photo by delfi de la Rua

Where I start often shapes where I end up. If I begin a walk in Central Virginia, I’ll probably see a lot of trees, farmland, and might end up on the Blue Ridge Parkway; if I start in Paris, I’ll have a different experience. Furthermore, if I start on foot, the rate of ground I cover will be very different than if I begin in a vehicle. Should I take supplies? I can only go so far and for so long without supplies…

The choices we make at the beginning of our journey shape and influence the outcome of that journey, and a similar logic applies to questions. If someone asks me about my life plans, how I answer will reflect the assumptions about what constitutes a “good life” that I grew up. If I grew up a Christian, I might answer the question with something about going into ministry or starting a church. If I grew up on a farm, I might answer about how I’d like to purchase some property.

Should I go into ministry or own some property? Those are different questions, but it’s likely that if I never think about them, my answers will reflect my upbringing “thoughtlessly,” without second guessing it. We all have to approach topics and questions from “default positions”: no one begins with “a view from nowhere,” to use Thomas Nagel’s line. This isn’t inherently bad, but if we never take the time to think about our “default positions,” there is a high chance that we’ll limit the possibilities of where we could end up and not even realize it. And stuck on a “narrow road” shaped by what we “absorb” (as discussed in “Compelling” by O.G. Rose), we could end up making poor choices we will lack the tools to even notice, let alone correct.

We all have positions on topics, decisions, and the like we never think about — I mean, we can’t think about everything (even if we try) — perhaps we claim we’re “agnostic,” but that’s still a position. We must have a view on what constitutes “the good life,” for example, on which political party is best, on what careers are worth pursuing, and so on. If we never think philosophically, our positions on these questions will likely be ones we “absorb” from our surroundings versus ones we pick for ourselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean we will be wrong, but it does mean we could end up like cattle stuck between fences. Sure, we have a field we can roam around in, but we’re ultimately not free. At best, we only have free range.

Worse yet, our choices about who we are and how we live are often shaped in ways that we don’t fully realize; simultaneously, these choices give us “some room to think,” which makes it seem like we are “free to think.” If I am born absorbing the assumption that “life is about making money,” then I will have room to choose for myself how “I make money,” but I will only have freedom to move around within a framework I didn’t choose. But the fact I can move around at all will make it feel like I have “total freedom.”

At the same time, we are miserable if don’t have “givens,” if we lack any “starting point” to help us determine how we should live. As discussed throughout “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose, if humans are too free, they are existentially overwhelmed, but so too are humans unhappy if they aren’t free enough. How is the right balance struct? Well, I think it’s generally found in David Hume’s “philosophical journey,” where we leave a “common life” to embark on a life of thinking but ultimately return and “re-embed” ourselves in a “common life.” But this does mean that avoiding philosophy all together isn’t a good option, which means just “absorbing” our starting assumptions, default orientations, and the like won’t prove adequate. We need to think about default positions and assumptions regarding family, medicine, technology, politics, and so on, and then practice those defaults we earned for ourselves.

None of us step into questions or topics as “blank slates”: if we did, we’d have to build our entire frameworks for understanding the world “from the ground up” each and every time, which would be completely impractical if not downright impossible. We must start with “a view from somewhere,” and a critical advantage of philosophy is that we train ourselves to choose our “views from somewhere.” We own our “givens” versus live “thoughtlessly” according to them, and we certainly don’t try to live without “givens” at all (a life of “pure deconstruction”). But how do we “own” and “think about” “givens” without risking their “givenness?” Well, that’s a topic explored throughout O.G. Rose: to start, humility helps…

Personally, it seems to me that those who live only “absorbing starting positions” end up living lives of being like a “pendulum,” swinging between positions, sometimes contradictory, randomly absorbing whatever the environment happens to be supporting or presenting. We end up constantly pushed around and confused, unable (in a way) to turn off our tendency to “absorb” what is around us. It would seem a role of philosophy is to help us “turn off” our tendency to simply reflect our surroundings in our thoughts and actions: philosophy turns us from “absorbers” into “choosers,” per se. Not perfectly, no, for we can’t help but always be “taking in” something: they key is that philosophy gives us control over what we “take in” and how strongly we’re shaped by it. We can’t avoid having a view, but at least we can work to make it feel like it came from somewhere.

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