What I Learned in Philosophy 101

What I Learned in Philosophy 101

I’ve procrastinated for 35 years. No longer. Today is the day. Today, I will write about Philosophy 101.

It's a chair.
Photo by Renè Müller on Unsplash

* * *

Socrates: Knowledge is the only good; ignorance is the only evil.

In the first week of philosophy class, I decide I will put in three hours of study outside of class for every hour in. That’s what I’m told is required at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio in 1962.Required or not, however, I’ll do this because I am ignorant, and I do mean to acquire knowledge. I may have been a smart  person in high school, but as one of my professors has already pointed out to me, “You’re not in high school anymore.”

Plato: Everything that exists is an imperfect copy of a perfect form outside our universe.

“No, Plato doesn’t mean like on Mars,” says the professor, being good natured about the question.

That evening at my desk, I apply Plato’s concept to myself. Outside the universe, hmm. Could mean heaven. If so, there’s an angel up there somewhere with long graceful fingers and toes who can breathe fresh air in the springtime without snot running down her nose. Oh, and she can see, too, without glasses, all the way down to this imperfect world with this imperfect me in a dorm room slumped at my desk. “Sit up straight,” she says.

Now, I do feel imperfect.

Aristotle: All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Here are two other examples of Aristotelian deductive reasoning:

  • Ignorance is the only evil; I am ignorant; therefore, I am evil.
  • Everything we know is an imperfect copy of a perfect form. I am part of everything we know. Therefore, I am an imperfect copy.

Also, I am now depressed.

Descartes: The mind is not part of the physical universe. The body is part of the physical universe. The mind and body get together through the brain. Through the brain, I know that I exist. In his own words, “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think; therefore I am.)

I asked my professor, “If the mind is not part of the physical universe, is it a perfect form, per Plato?”

My professor answers another student’s question. So I must make up my own mind. Let’s see:

First, the mind is not part of the physical universe. It may be a perfect form. If it is, then the mind does not exist in any way that has meaning to an imperfect existence like me. Second, the body is part of the physical universe. As such, the body can’t think. So, if thinking is a requisite to existence, then the body doesn’t exist.

Oh, wait, the brain: Isn’t that the part of me that’s ignorant, imperfect, depressed? The instructor is now wandering back and forth in front of the class expounding on mind, body and brain, and I have no idea what he is talking about.

* * *

And so it went when I was 19 and being introduced to the world’s great thinkers. Each of the perhaps 30 thinkers we studied during the first weeks of Philosophy 101 had important things to say, and each evening after class, after earnestly pondering what they said, I felt as though I only had less important things to say.

It wasn’t too distressing, though, since while I did try to give each one of those big ideas some thought, I mostly just memorized them. They didn’t have much to do with my exciting life. Like when my friend and I ran three miles back to the dorm after gawking at Charlton Heston’s sunburned pectorals in “El Cid”—and made it back to the dorm one minute before curfew. Or the weeks I proudly practiced what my dance instructor called “hook sit” until I could sit down, put the soles of my feet together just in front of me and put my knees on the floor to either side of my feet. Or the time I fell in love with the first famous poet I ever saw, on an evening he spent reading his work to all us giggling girls. Now, if he had looked at me just once, instead of at that blond in front of me with the suntan and the diamond stud earrings.

Three hours out of class for every hour in. I do want to emphasize this schedule since I think it doesn’t exist anymore, except maybe at Harvard or Yale, and then only if your Daddy isn’t rich. I did spend those three hours, and I did the best I could with big ideas. My memorization was so good, in fact, that when it came time for philosophy semifinals, I didn’t even consider my ignorance, imperfection, depression or confusion. My pen seemed to flit on its own from answer to answer, leaving my mind, body and brain out of it.

The next day, the professor was late to class. By the time all 30-or-so of us freshmen had seated ourselves, he still wasn’t there. This had never happened before. Everybody looked at everybody else. Nobody wanted to be the first one to leave.

Suddenly, the door to the auditorium in back of us banged open. The professor blew in and up to the head of the class, in mid stride sweeping a chair along with him and then depositing it at the front of the room. He leaned over and patted the chair seat fondly. “Today,” he said, now upright again, “we begin the second half of your introduction to knowledge.” Here he paused, raised one eyebrow, and looked out at us earnestly. “So,” he continued, “what I want to know is this: How do you know this is a chair?”

( … ! )

“Class dismissed.”

As we all fumbled confusedly about for books and book packs, he added, “Write a paper about it. Turn it in on Thursday.”

I felt dislocated. It had never occurred to me to question whether a chair was a chair, a real something or a figment. I felt as though I had sat down somewhere that wasn’t on a chair. Like my chair was over there and I was nowhere. What made it intolerable was that I knew that what was true—or not true—about the chair was also true—or false—about my desk, the paper I was supposed to turn in, my memory and perhaps even my philosophy.

That night, late, after hours of bumbling around amid class notes and books, I wrote a paper that reviewed a dozen or so philosophical stances that might apply, refuted them all with what I hoped were cogent arguments, and concluded that the brown wooden thing with a seat and a back and rungs was a chair because I could sit in it and because I had to call it something. To my amazement, the professor gave me an A on the paper. The only thing I missed, he noted, was the title of the philosophy I had described: pragmatism.

Thirty or forty more philosophers after that, with no grade lower than an A minus behind me, I still didn’t know how I really knew it was a chair. To this day, if I think about how I know what I know, I feel the same dislocation I felt when I was 19. I’ve felt it ever since then, for almost 60 years. That’s probably why writing about Philosophy 101 has taken.

But you know what? So what? All those old dead thinkers did was think. Meanwhile, here I am, firmly located at my desk, heaven knows not an angel yet, planning to quit my stubby-finger typing at the end of this very long sentence and go out and sit in my CHAIR! on the balcony, in the sunshine, and savor a sweet iced tea.