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Should I Put It in the Garage and Risk Hoarding?
On philosophy and the question of “use.”
It can be hard to tell if philosophy is “useful,” because there seem to be ways in which ideas matter, but at the same time it can be hard to say how ideas are useful. Often, metaphorically, I think we associate the question of “Is philosophy useful?” with the question of if philosophy is like a wrench, but I think this might be a mistake. We know a wrench is useful when we need a wrench, and in the metaphor we can suggest we already have something to use the wrench for (a loose bolt, for example)—but such is not the case with philosophy. As already described in O.G. Rose, philosophy is more like a fire extinguisher. Is a fire extinguisher useful? Hopefully not, but if so, it might be the most useful thing in the world.
In this short work, I want to introduce another metaphor that might help us approach philosophy, and that is the metaphor of the garage. When I store something in my garage, is it useful or not? Well, a reason I’m putting it in my garage is because I might need it, but I’m not entirely sure. I can’t say that what I’m storing will definitely be used one day, and to keep it I must risk “being a hoarder” and keeping something that takes up space for no reason. But at the same time, if I end up needing the thing, possessing it can save me a lot of time, money, and prove invaluable in a pinch. So should I keep the thing or dispose of it? I must decide (and please note the centrality of choice in O.G. Rose).
I might store something for five years, but then one day I might decide I should dispose of it or replace it with something else. Philosophy can prove similar: I may like some idea from Hume for decades, but then one day decide to throw the idea out and fill the space. Also, when I decide to buy something and store it, I’m using my time and money to do this when I could be using my time and money on something else (there is a risk). If I store, I have to do the work of storing; likewise, when I read philosophy, I have to do the work of philosophy, and thus might be taking time away from cultivating friendships or a career. My time is finite, and if I use it for x I don’t use it for y. The choice to store is indeed a choice.
There is a concern in philosophy of using philosophy for practical ends, for as we learn from Julien Benda, “use” is easily in service of the socioeconomic order, and if nothing is “useless” we might lose our humanity, for everything that makes us human can be quantified and “captured.” This is true, but at the same time if philosophy can’t be used for anything, why put in the work to learn philosophy? Hopefully O.G. Rose addresses this concern, but I think the metaphor of “the garage” can also help, because when we choose to store something the choice is, at that moment, abyssal, which is to say the choice is its own grounding.
The philosophical notion we choose to keep cannot be justified for sure, for the day may never come when the thing we store is a thing we use. Thus, the choice to store an idea in our mind cannot necessarily be seen as a choice to keep an idea because it is useful: all we can say is that it may be useful. And this “may” is critical, for it creates a slight gap between the idea and our use of it that helps protect that idea from “capture” and that also helps the idea be in service of our humanity in not necessarily being practical. We don’t know that we will use the idea, and so we don’t know if it will be a solution or aid. Thus, at the time, the choice to learn and keep the idea is “abyssal” and impractical.
That’s all well and good, but what is philosophy for anyway? Why might I one day “pull it out of the garage” and employ it? That’s a good question, and one way I would think about it is that philosophy is in the business of better descriptions of reality. Literature is partially in the business of description, and Cormac McCarthy describes the West in a manner that is far superior to me and that can change my experience of the West in profound ways. This in turn can change how I think, act, and behave in the West, and how I so act will be different from if I only ever experience a description of the West by a less talented writer. Similarly, a great example of philosophy might change how I experience a relationship, a conflict, beauty, etc., which in turn changes how I experience it and am transformed by it. Thanks to the “philosophical description,” how I am in the world and shaped by the world is different, which can have extremely practical impacts on my life (description trains self-defense). No, I didn’t know these practical impacts would happen, and there is certainly no guarantee that reading literature will change my life. But that lack of a guarantee is precisely what ideas need to be protected from “capture,” and that lack of a guarantee also means a bit of courage, bravery, and/or faith is required for me to engage in these fields. Thus, there is character-development in the learning of these fields—as seems needed in our world for us to feel fully human.
In some Christian theology, there is an idea that God is Heaven for those who love him and Hell for those who hate him, which is to say how we are “toward” God impacts how we experiences God. Similarly, how we are “toward” reality can impact how it “unfolds” to us, and if we are “toward” reality according to “x philosophical description” versus “y philosophical description,” the world might unfold very differently. In this way, there can be real stakes in philosophy, for there are real stakes in how we are “toward” the world (especially if the “feedback loop” of Hegel’s “Absolute Idealism” is the case), and yet these “real stakes” are only well-approached if we do so through a view of philosophy as “useless” (and through resisting the temptation to overly-identify with philosophy, which is to say we need to be “self-forgetful”). There are no guarantees. What we store in our garage is only potential. And potential can ultimately prove to be nothing. But what can happen that might surprise us if there’s no risk of nothingness?