Garage Philosophy

The Central Meridian (aka The Garage) by Michael C. McMillen, 1981.

In his entertaining survey, High Weirdness : Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies Erik Davis uses the phrase “garage philosopher” to describe the self-made DIY thoughtstylists of the 70s counterculture. Considering the epistemological mess we’re in right now, it would be to our benefit to re-embrace garage philosophy, to democratize and make practical the observations of the greats of the discipline. Unfortunately, my public school education, almost all the way through grad school, never exposed me to even a cursory survey of philosophy.

This might be by design. In the years of cold war paranoia I grew up in, I suspect the powers that be didn’t want people thinking too deeply about the status quo. Or maybe it’s just that our overly literal culture dismisses the liberal arts as lacking utility.

Despite my garage philosopher’s sub-undergrad understanding of $50 concepts like epistemology and ontology, for today’s blog post I want to take on a concept I’m triggered by and take it to the philosophical garage for some quick tinkering and repair.

The problem in question is in an article I wasted my time reading in Scientific American floating the perennial “are we living in a simulation” argument. First let me crankily note that when you have a plumbing problem you call a plumber. When you have a philosophy problem you call a philosopher. Please, please, please, my dear journalists, take the ever annoying Neil deGrasse Tyson out of your phone’s contacts. At the very least, only call him when you want to know things like the size of the rings of Saturn. He shouldn’t be allowed near anything that involves meaning or ambiguity.

Speaking of plumbers, let’s get back to the are-we-living-in-a-simulation problem. I suspect most plumbers don’t have this epistemological conundrum since they spend their hours in confrontation with a world that doesn’t generally bend in our interests so easily. Let me also guess that emergency room nurses, welders and gardeners also don’t have the are-we-living-in-a-simulation problem. No, the question bedevils people who spend way too many hours in front of computers and (un)smart phones. I’m looking at you Elon Musk. Put down the phone and let’s head to the philosophy garage.

How to be a garage philosopher

  • Work your way though Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy. I recommend this over the more popular survey by Bertrand Russell. Russell has a bias against the Medieval philosophers and that’s a shame IMHO.
  • Form a reading group. It’s more fun to read this stuff with other people and you can do it over Zoom. I formed one to work through a particularly notorious philosophical tome. A mix of genders in your reading group is good. Too many dudes talkin’ philosophy can get insufferable. I should know. Definitely serve drinks.

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9 Comments

  1. I was a scholarship student in the UK a million years ago. When I arrived at uni no one had any record of my existence and none of the classes I signed up for were available. After some sturm and drang I was recognized by the administrators and was told to find seats in whichever classes still had openings. The pickings were slim. I found myself reading philosophy by accident.

  2. A society that scorns excellence in plumbing, because plumbing is a humble activity, yet tolerates shoddiness in philosophy, because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.

    • I should have made it clear that this witty and perceptive statement was not a product of my own genius but was actually a quote from a book by John W. Gardner, who was Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under the Lyndon Johnson administration. When I made the original post, I did not know this, but thought it was folk wisdom that merited wider dissemination.

      My apologies to the late Secretary Gardner. However, I wish I HAD said it!

  3. Pingback: In Defense of Theory | Root Simple

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