Dear Donagh,

My young nephew [….] started college a few months ago, and he tells me he has discovered his real interest, which is philosophy. He’s a very intense lad and he talks obsessively about it, not even noticing there’s no one on the wavelength with him. I don’t know anything about the subject myself, but I'm a little bit nervous that he might get himself into some rut that he won’t be able to get out of.  I know that you used to teach philosophy in the past.  Am I right to be concerned? He's a great lad, I'd hate to see him getting messed up.  Any advice?  John

Dear John,

I don’t know your nephew, so I can't give you any definite advice.  But I can say that philosophy isn't like a religious cult: there are no charismatic figures, no mind-control, no secret language, not even a distinguishing cravat, such as poets used to wear in the past  - especially the ones who had no other way of letting people know they were poets.  You might think of it as a love affair – like a sudden great love of music, or mountain-climbing, or golf…. It will surely do him a lot of good.  And he may indeed have a great gift for it.   

It's an austere subject, and not everyone will appreciate his interest in it, especially at this early stage when he is talking intensely about it without noticing that others aren’t interested.  It reminds me of a farmer I knew many years ago whose brother later became professor of mathematics at UCC.  While his older brothers and a neighbour were drawing in the hay, the younger brother was studying his maths outdoors (it was a very warm day).  The neighbour said, “Would you tell that brother of yours to put away his oul’ story books and come and give us a hand with the hay.”  It’s a good thing that academic people usually have someone to bring them down to earth.

I remember conversations with a student, years ago, who had a similar interest to your nephew’s.  But he wasn’t in it for the joy of thinking: he just wanted answers.  He must have had the impression that I would be well stocked with them.  So I put my cards on the table: “I don’t understand anything!”  He was shocked to hear me say that (even though it’s a normal disavowal).  “So you wasted your time!” he said.  “No, it’s good to have spent those years with philosophy,” I told him, “because it teaches you the most important lesson: which is that you know little or nothing.”  This is the hardest lesson for a young person to accept, because it looks like an admission of failure.  But sooner or later—unless we are delusional—we all come to accept it. 

There’s no need to be worried, John, about your nephew’s love-affair with philosophy.  Young people’s energy keeps the world from going to sleep, while older people tend to have a more placid outlook.  I think now that philosophy is not about answering questions; it’s about dissipating false questions: seeing the bias in every question – so that in the end you're content just to stand there and look at things.  When you begin to do that you spot all kinds of things trying to sneak in: assumptions, biases, hidden agendas, buried metaphors, logical slips, false comparisons, escape into abstraction, etc.    All these are obstacles to sight: like floaters in your eye.  It’s helpful to be aware of them, so as not to think that they exist out there. 

Sooner or later we get drawn into meditation – and this will probably be the case with your nephew too eventually.  Young people want full lights on—a total vision of everything—but meditators usually light a candle, even in broad daylight: a very humble light, only a little better than darkness.  Its meaning is symbolic, not practical.  It wavers and trembles, while daylight and electric light are unflinching.  It is more like us: it is tentative, vulnerable, and it has a shorter span of life.  It acknowledges the darkness, it doesn’t try to wipe it out.  But most young people expect something more exciting.   

I don’t know, John, if you are expected to endure intense lectures from your nephew.  Be brave.  I would find it exhausting.  “That is no country for old men.” 

Good luck!



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