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Philosophy As Writing Down Notes for a Presentation We Then Throw Away
A way to consider philosophy as embodied, inspired by Isaiah Berlin
Legend has it, Isaiah Berlin would write down copious notes before lectures and presentations, and then throw them all away. He never used them, which seems strange: why go to all that trouble? Well, it would seem that Berlin needed to write those notes down to “get into his head” a sense of the structure of his presentation, but then if he looked at his notes while presenting, his lecture would be blocky, his style unengaging, and his presence a damper. Thus, Berlin found it best to write copious notes to absorb and sense a structure, only to then leave the notes behind. This seems like a waste, but the practice was arguably precisely why Berlin was able to prove such a compelling speaker.
I personally write down notes and thoughts before speaking myself, only to never look at them. And yet I cannot skip the step: if I don’t write, my thoughts aren’t structured, points don’t connect, and I have no sense of where I am going. The writing seems like it doesn’t matter for the speaking, but it is what generates the background that makes the speaking possible. What I don’t write on, I find it hard to speak on, and yet if I speak while trying to glance at notes or the like, nothing makes sense. I must write what I toss.
When it comes to philosophy, I find something similar seems to be at work. We study philosophy and think philosophically, but then it is critical to basically “leave it behind” when we live our lives and “walk on the stage” of society. We shouldn’t “look at our notes” per se and explicitly think philosophically, but instead let philosophy inform our background and structure our actions without us thinking too much about it.
Yes, as it seems like Berlin didn’t “need to write out his notes” if he was just going to leave them all behind, so it seems like we don’t need philosophy if we’re ultimately not going to explicitly and directly use it in our lives, but actually this is how we use philosophy. Of course, we still have to make time to read philosophy and to talk with other people philosophically, so I am not saying there is no situation in which we should be explicitly philosophical or should make a point to engage in philosophy, but rather I am saying that “in our daily and concrete lives,” philosophy is a thing that is best located “in the background,” just like the notes Berlin would take before his presentation. Audiences did not see Berlin writing out his notes, and in this way it was “as if” Berlin never engaged in that practice, and yet that practice was paramount and central for his oratory genius. Similarly, philosophy I believe is paramount for our development as subjects who operate in the world, but for us to “live well”—as was necessary for Berlin to “present well”—we must leave all those notes behind.
For me, this notion of philosophy fits well with Hegel’s “abstraction, negation, and concretion,” for there is a way in which Berlin “negated” his note-taking (process of abstraction) precisely when he walked out to engage in the “concrete action” of his presentation. We can algin “abstraction” with “writing,” “negation” with “leaving the writing behind,” and “concretion” with “giving the presentation”; similarly, “abstraction” is “philosophy,” “negation” is “leaving philosophy in the background,” and “concretion” is “common life.” On this point, I think we should note how frightening it can be to “leave our notes behind,” per se, which suggests that we do not complete “the process” unless we take a risk and make ourselves vulnerable. When we are reading our books and studying philosophy, we are not at risk of encountering people who hurt us, of making mistakes, or worse. Philosophy is safe, as it feels safe to bring our notes on stage to present, and indeed perhaps there is a phrase in our life where we need to “work with notes” and be more explicitly philosophical. But a day must come where we take a risk and put ourselves out there, an act which for me suggests a gaining of the Thymos that Raymond K. Hessel has so well argued we need. Where the philosopher is never vulnerable, the philosopher never fully becomes a philosopher. Risk is a necessary part of the road.
We must study and practice to step into the place where what we study and what we practice is no longer there to support us: we must learn to walk with support so that we eventually learn to walk without it. We study philosophy and life so that we might live them, but that requires risk and vulnerability. We must work hard to write out notes we then do not use. We must face fear, fail, and fail better.