What Is Geek Philosophy?

professor doctor

Grey Havens YA is many things. We are geeks and nerds. We are readers, writers, and artists. We are philosophers. Our group takes its name from a harbor in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a place where ships depart to the Undying Lands, a place that connects the everyday to the extraordinary. The idea is that we are learning to live our lives with one foot in this world and one foot beyond it so that we can look upon ourselves with philosophical distance, seeing what we might not notice until we step back from it, understanding what we might not understand until we look at it with both logic and imagination. This is how we become philosophers or lovers of wisdom (philo-love, sophia-wisdom).

At Grey Havens YA, philosophy is part of everything we do, whether it is our weekly book discussions, Fandoms Unite, Hogwarts Preparatory Academy, or our recent Multigenerational Philosophy Discussion at the Longmont Senior Center. We approach all our endeavors with a spirit and method of inquiry that we call Geek Philosophy.

These are the principles that make Geek Philosophy work.

Philosophy is for everyone. Geek Philosophy is based in a rich tradition that is probably as old as humankind but that, in the West, can easily be traced back to the classical and Hellenistic philosophers.  Pierre Hadot said of these philosophers that they practiced “philosophy as a way of life.” The first principle of Geek Philosophy is that it is not an ivory tower pursuit for professionals, not something just for academic journals or for the big decisions made by governments or corporations; it is for everyone, all the time.  Everyone has a philosophy, a system of propositions according to which they live. Sometimes, these propositions are confused and contradictory. Often, they are unconsciously held. Geek Philosophy helps us to identify our beliefs, hold them up to the light, and change them when they do not stand up to examination. It helps us to live rich, examined lives.

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We are all natural philosophers. In the 1960s, philosopher Matthew Lipman developed a program called Philosophy for Children or P4C that has been replicated successfully many times since. The idea central to P4C is that all humans, even small children, are natural philosophers but it takes years to master the technical jargon that allows us to play the “word games” of professional philosophers. P4C uses literature as a launching pad for jargon-free discussions of the questions that occupy us all: Who am I? Why am I here? Why am I me instead of someone else? What is the good life? What is truth? Beauty? Justice? This leads us to our third principle.

Stories are philosophy without discourse. This includes the stories told by movies, TV shows, video games, music and other visual and performing arts. Behind every story, there is a set of propositions about the world. In story, these propositions are communicated to us in a way that transcends words. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote of the pregnant or poignant instance, an instance that contains all other instances. There is something that can be understood about flowers by watching a single flower grow that can never be understood by consuming all the world’s texts on flowers.

Nature acts through soil, seed, sun, and water to grow the flower. J.R.R. Tolkien believed that stories grow in the human imagination in a similar way. He called this subcreation. A good story contains even more than the author intended. It is more than a construct; it is an expression of the same reality that expresses itself in the growing flower. Goethe wrote that the phenomenon, such as the flower or the story, is the theory. He believed that all of the things people have said about a phenomenon can crowd our minds and keep us from really knowing the thing itself. Know the flower (or the story), he urged, not the abstract idea of it.

stories stetson

Stories provide us with poignant expressions of love, truth, beauty, justice without abstracting these phenomena. To grasp what a story is communicating is the practice of philosophy because philosophy is about understanding more than it is about explaining. Discourse, or a set of spoken or written propositions, is one result of the practice of philosophy, not the practice itself. That is why we begin each Geek Philosophy gathering by experiencing a story.

In this scene from Doctor Who, the great artist Vincent Van Gogh has traveled through time and space to visit the Musee D’Orsay where a retrospective of his work is being held. To use discourse to communicate everything that this scene communicates about life and art would require volumes and would likely yield less understanding.

This does not mean that we do not value or practice discourse. At every gathering, we benefit from making explicit our implicit understanding of a story. We benefit from visiting each other’s perspectives on the same story but we try not to let our interpretations stand as the last words on the subject. We strive to avoid using discourse to strip the story of its richness, just as discourse should not strip life of its richness. What we feel, what we apprehend through the experience of the story is a more direct experience of philosophy than anything we can say about the story. When we can connect this to our actual lives and create an emotional and intellectual touchstone that we can access when we need to understand something, we have succeeded as philosophers.

Philosophy depends on the imagination. Our discussions do not begin with just any stories but with the imaginative tales of fantasy and science fiction. Memory sees, or purports to see, what we have already seen. Imagination sees things differently. The practice of philosophy demands that we cultivate different perspectives, that we look beyond our day-to-day concerns. Seeking philosophical distance helps us to extend our minds to perceive a problem as it might appear through the eyes of another or even across time and space. The problem is that we tend to get stuck in our own experiences, expectations, and desires, including seeing the theory rather than the thing.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that human beings usually experience the world through “appropriation.” We approach the world with our minds already made up about it because we see it as existing for us, rather than for itself. He believed that we free ourselves from the habit of appropriation through the practice of Recovery.

Recovery, or the ability to perceive without prejudice, can begin when we see ordinary things in an extraordinary setting. Tolkien wrote that we should not weary of painting because we see only the colors we know. Instead, we should make paintings that help us see those colors anew. This kind of thing happens when we see a strange wizard smoking an ordinary pipe or when we see an ordinary blue box surviving the vibrant tumult of the time vortex. What Tolkien called the “arresting strangeness” of the fantastic story wakes us up so that we pay renewed attention even to the story’s familiar elements, like pipes and blue boxes. Fiction that engages the imagination wakes us from the slumber of appropriation.

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A 2009 study by Proulx and Heine suggests that encountering what first seems to be a nonsense scenario, a blue box in the time vortex or a lamppost in a snowy wood, causes us to try to make a deeper sense by looking harder for meaning and coherence. If we are so entrenched in our appropriated world that we cannot imagine anything but only recall what we are used to seeing, we will not get very far in this process. Fantasy primes us perfectly for philosophy because, once our imagination is engaged, we can use it to conjure up all kinds of new possibilities. Geeks are great at this because we are drawn to otherness and entranced by the unknown. We are not afraid of the strange so it doesn’t frighten us to see the strangeness in the everyday.

Have you ever wondered if there is a place where breathing oxygen and walking about on two legs would seem preposterous? If you haven’t, it is because you have gotten used to these things. Probably, it has never occurred to you to do anything but take them for granted. Being used to something or taking it for granted is not the same as understanding it. Until we look at our own two legs with as much amazement as we would look at the wings of dragons, our ability to understand will be circumscribed. Geek philosophy begins with the alien out there and ends with the alien in our own hearts. That is not as frightening as it might sound, not to us, because, in our story, an alien is the one who shows us how amazing the universe really is.

come with me

“Think you’ve seen it all? Think again. Outside those doors, we might see anything. We could find new worlds, terrifying monsters, impossible things. And if you come with me… nothing will ever be the same again!” -The Doctor

Now it’s your turn. Let’s start a Geek Philosophy discussion about the clips below. Send us an owl (comment) with your thoughts and try to look at the world anew.

What is true?

What is beautiful?

What is just?

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