In earlier posts I set out what I regard as two pillars of my personal philosophy: pragmatism and individualism. Today I thought I’d try to write about my third and final pillar, but I’ve had a hard time coming up with exactly what this one is, or what to call it.
How could that be, you wonder? How do I even know there’s another “pillar” there?
I know it because to my ears, simply describing my philosophy as “pragmatic” and “individualistic” sounds incomplete. There’s something about my beliefs and how I arrive at them that feels different from the way others arrive at theirs, at least as far as I can tell. The clue is that people I talk with often feel that my ideas are “way out” or unfamiliar or foreign, or that they come from strange and obscure sources. So I’m going to label this quality with a word I used a few days ago to characterize my reading (and now that I look at the post, I see that I also used it there to characterize my philosophy!): “eclectic”.
So yes, eclectic, “selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles”.
But isn’t that what everyone does anyway all the time? Don’t we always choose the best of what’s available to us? Why give this human tendency a special name?
The answer lies in the word various. We choose the best of the things that happen to be in front of us, or that happen to be known to us right now, but often that horizon is not very large, and we don’t make any special effort to increase it. Our “favorite dish” is one of the things that Mom used to make—but we’ve never even sampled the cuisines of Mexico, Italy, France, India, or China. If we did, whether we liked it or not, we’d be in for a surprise. But if our mind and our tastebuds are open enough, we will find plenty to like out there.
As I write these things I feel a bit strange, because in my own eyes I’m not an adventurous person. I’m a homebody by nature and although I’ve tried many kinds of food, I’m content to eat mostly a few favorite things rather than continuing to hunt for new experiences. I rarely travel or even go out.
But intellectually I’m adventurous. I’m eager for new ideas and am willing to put up with difficulties in order to discover them and familiarize myself with them—difficulties like reading hard books attentively. I like knowledge for its own sake, and I don’t care where it comes from. In that way it’s like 24-carat gold: whether in the form of a coin, an earring, or a candlestick, it is the same pure substance. I want to know what is true, and life—and other great teachers—have taught me that appearances deceive. You have to look deeper.
The eclectic thinker is not interested in package deals, that is, in taking up philosophies wholesale, such as Platonism or Marxism or existentialism. Each element has to persuade on its own merits.
Again, this sounds obvious. Who willingly acquiesces in a beliefs that are awkward or incredible, just in order to “keep the set together” of some package? I believe we all do, at least some of the time, and some of us do it all of the time. A belief from an “outside” system might “break” our own adopted system, so we have to reject it, no matter how appealing or plausible it might be in itself.
An example from my own experience is astrology. I would say that my natural personal outlook is a scientific one. As a kid I loved science—I had my first subscription to Scientific American magazine at age 13—and expected to become a scientist when I grew up. My special interest was space science and up to my mid-teens I thought that becoming something like a radio astronomer would be one of the coolest things possible. To me, astrology was superstitious mumbo-jumbo. I agreed with Carl Sagan that it had “no validity whatsoever”, and I scoffed at those who took it in any way seriously.
By my late teens, though, doubts had started to creep in. Not to do with astrology per se to begin with, but more a sense that truth was something bigger than what could be approached only through science. Works of literature and other art were having deep, powerful effects on what might be called my soul, and I wondered about new (to me) ideas like symbolism and the unconscious. I might not have been able to phrase it thus, but I was starting to hunger for some way of understanding my experience as a whole—tangible and intangible, inner and outer. I was awakening to a new kind of deep hunger in my life that I could not even give a name, but which I was able to recognize immediately when I read, in 1980, Jacob Needleman’s introduction to the book The Sword of Gnosis:
The marvels of modern science are the end-result of a movement toward more liberal education and greater freedom of inquiry, wh ich began long ago with the vowed purpose of widening human knowledge. As the pressure of technology increases, however, the authentic patterns of human life are more and more upset, and a descent into total materialism seems to be inevitable. Man has thrust upon himself a standard of knowing and a view of reality which blind him to his possible role within the universal scheme. . . .
In offering a selection from the many available texts, the editor has necessarily to rely on his own need and hunger for a more impartial sense of himself. . . .
Back to astrology. As part of this restless groping for a wider, more total way of knowing, I started looking into symbols and occult ideas—including into astrology. And what I found, when I looked at it without bias, was that there seemed to be something to it. Intrigued, I began to study it more carefully, and before long become a more or less serious student of it. I learned to draw and interpret charts, and to this day I include astrology as one of my fields of study. The more I work with it, the more validity I find in it.
But astrology is not a science, certainly not in the modern sense. And according to the modern scientific view of the world, astrology cannot have any validity, because there is no conceivable physical mechanism that could make it work. If you’re an astrophysicist who happens to be a Capricorn, you may be amused to find that you do possess a number of supposedly “Capricornian” traits, but this would not seduce you into thinking that there is any kind of objective validity to the idea of stars’ and planets’ influencing human qualities. Still less would you consider adding an astrological component to your roster of observations. To your knowledge, no university anywhere offers a science degree in astrology, and that’s as it should be. Case closed.
But what about that amusing correlation between our Capricorn scientist and the list of Capricornian traits? It remains merely one of those “huh, how about that?” things—not worth changing a career, or a worldview, over.
And here’s where I’m different. The truly eclectic philosopher takes on those things, those facts and beliefs, that appear to his unbiased gaze to be true, and accepts them. And if that acceptance throws a spanner into an existing theoretical framework, no matter how venerated, widely held, or socially enforced it might be, then that’s just too bad. So much the worse for the theoretical framework. We need a new one, a better one, a more inclusive one. And I’m willing to work on that.