I’m restarting the “Philosophical Research Group” here in Los Angeles, maybe even in my motorhome, in the cozy, discursively-sized kitchen nook. My guests will scribble out notes on a dry-erase board. The snacks and beverages will flow; the sky will tremble. The PRG began five or six years ago, originally at the Philadelphia Institute for Advanced Study. Its page described its program as “the analysis and exuberant exploration of events, objects, and phenomena from everyday life, rather than the discussion of ‘philosophical’ objects or topics. In these discussions, participants are not expected to stay within philosophical— or even intellectual— lines. Anything of relevance may be brought to bear; whether historical, philosophical, anecdotal, hypothetical, scientific— whatever is most suggestive and stimulating. After initial discussions, we will also run a possibility analysis, in which we discuss how we might reconfigure these elements into a Sublime, where possible. Results will be then passed onto other departments for further development.”
So instead of getting together and talking about “philosophical objects” or “philosophical topics”— truth, beauty, justice, negation, bad infinity— we pull out a topic, either at random or for its relevance and prominence in our daily lives, and just start riffing. Cellphones. Pets and animal hospitals. Clothing. Planes, trains, and automobiles. Houseshows. Aging. Bodily noises. Team sports. The next one’s about natural disasters: earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes.
The program is more than a game. It speaks to many of the conceptions of what I think philosophy is and isn’t. I consider philosophy a largely creative discipline— like poetry, music, and visual art— rather than a body or field of knowledge. Philosophy, for me, is a form of far-ranging, over-caffeinated, world-disclosing ideation and meaning-making that, like poetry, music, and visual art, has no “proper,” no domain, nothing that belongs or does not belong as its subject matter. It is thought without borders that, for its very borderlessness, could never grant any special access to those who “study philosophy.”
This might disappoint those who get into it with the hopes of circumscribing the world with thought, and believe that philosophy will give them the key terms and concepts to do so. Likewise, I don’t consider philosophy equivalent to much of its academic reality: philosophy as “the study of philosophers”…The semi-scholastic interpretation of authoritative thinkers and their interrelation… The Mind of the Master as Nature. This even includes the characterizations by my hero Richard Rorty of philosophy as a canon or “kind of writing” which strives to redescribe or renarrativize its own tradition. I love reading the works of philosophers— the tradition, the sequence, the commentary— and nerding out hard on them. I just don’t think philosophy is reducible to this activity or that you need the tradition to “philosophize”— a term which is already pompous enough. Just from drawing off experience, we are all ready to philosophize. This includes children.
The principled essayism of the Philosophical Research Group— in which topics are tossed up like clay pigeons— works off of this conception of philosophy as meaning-making, something that you can get better at by doing, by practice, rather than by simply observing or knowing. Like archery or acting or carpentry, it is an aptitude, a nimbleness that we perfect only through training. In universities, philosophy students should have studio hours reserved for ideation— maybe giant rooms that are floor to ceiling with dry-erase— as well as internet and mini-fridges stocked with energy drinks. Philosophical works are great, but ultimately as stimuli rather than substance. You can read and understand Kant; that’s only the beginning. You have to learn how to use him.
The PRG’s emphasis on the “everyday” is my own spin, that being the target of most of my ideating, but the concreteness of the everyday is something I would recommend for philosophy more generally. It’s a hearty antidote for the presumption that philosophical abstraction somehow encompasses its instances, making them dispensable, or even trivial. Abstraction is powerful but super lossy, until at the point of total abstraction, you’re saying way less than you think you are— and as little as nothing at all. I try to put the abstract and concrete in dialectic with one another, giving them each equal weight, equal chance to illuminate and complicate the other. In exploring the relation of “Home Depot and poeisis,” or “cellphones and Jakobson,” both should come out altered on the other side of the conversation. If the fit is too perfect, you’re probably sacrificing one for the sake of the other.
In the PRG, the concrete is given priority to offset that reflex of philosophical abstraction— that tendency to see the topic as an instance of some well-known philosophical distinction (this is even true for pop-works like those “The Simpsons and Philosophy” or “The Matrix and Philosophy” books by Blackwell, which try to bring in everyday life and pop culture, but only as an illustration of theory). Instead, each topic should have its own weight, opacity, and contradictions, and sit at the center of its meaning-making, possibly giving rise to its own theories and distinctions: Abba-theory, dogwalking-theory, acne-theory, sock-theory, the theory of California. Usually philosophers think up their grand abstractions with particular things in mind; then just push them until the metaphor runs aground, as all metaphors eventually do. For many, instances complicate or ruin their fantasies of universal mastery— that amphetaminic feeling of power that you get when you stumble upon a system that seems to hold the entire world in its grasp. That feeling is delicious, but recognize it for what it is.
The PRG tastes just as great, but hits a different side of the palate. We rarely feel like we’ve gotten any final answers really, but leave superstoked, frothing. Everyone walks out believing that they have the first steps towards any number of “fake disciplines,” as Howard Kleger calls them. I imagine the vibe was the kind of the same in the early days. This thing, philosophy.