What the world really needs: another rambling philosophy-and-motorcycles rant
There are a couple of basic questions around which philosophy is organized: epistemology, teleology, cosmology, being-a-loser-wearing-tweed-in-Barnes-and-Noble-and-trying-to-pick-up-college-sophomores-ology. The one I was most interested in was, and is, epistemology. “Episteme” was a Greek word for ‘knowledge’, but it also meant ‘message’ (like “epistle”.) Epistemology is the study of the philosophical question of “What can we know, and how do we know that we know it?” Solipsism is one of the topics of epistemology (“How do I know that I’m not the only person that exists, imagining everyone else?” “How do I know that the TV doesn’t stop when I turn it off?”) So is the brain-in-a-vat problem, cf. Keanu.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, epistemology was the problem that philosophers had to deal with. Descartes tried to fix things by backing up to the only thing he could trust: “well, if I’m doubting reality, somebody’s doing the doubting, so there’s a me, at least.”) Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza — the rationalists — tried to climb out of the hole by building structures of thought, making beautiful and well-organized frameworks to ground reality. Locke, Berkely, Hume — the empiricists — took the other tack, working from the outside in and trying to connect the dots between percieved reality and our thinking minds. “THUS do I refute Descartes!” Berkeley is supposed to have exclaimed through gritted teeth after savagely kicking a boulder.
Things got better with Kant, who was able to synthesize the rationalists and the empiricists into a unified whole. But it was the German philosophers of the twentieth century that came up with the strategy that I like the most. Husserl, Heidegger and Gadamer approached the corrosive problems of knowledge through phenomenology — the study of what we percieve, the stance we take towards what we percieve, and the way we act about the possibility that we are wrong or mistaken. Heidegger, in particular, cautioned us about ever becoming too complacent about the objects of our perceptions. As humans, we overlay the things that are with our expectations of what we think they are, and we have to be ready for the object of our perceptions to suddenly reveal itself as something totally else.
An object lesson: buying a motorcycle. Kate and I drove to Lansdowne on Sunday to deliver my starter bike to the winning eBay bidder. The buyer turned out to be a pleasant young guy named Dan, who just graduated high school and is working in a banquet hall over the summer. Dan came to the door sleepy: he’d been up late working the night before. He woke up quickly when he saw the bike, and he was excited. It was clearly obvious, that Dan was seeing the bike in the same way that I’d been looking at my new BMW while it was in the seller’s yard three weeks ago: it was a silhouette, a vaguely motorcycle-shaped outline sitting on its centerstand and exerting a strong gravitational but completely opaque pull. There were twin UJM-shaped outlines glowing in his retinas as he looked at the bike, and he confessed that he had completely forgotten all the stuff he was going to ask me about the bike.
Showing the bike to Dan, a first-time rider, was my first experience as a motorcyle guru. Watching him struggle to get the bike up on the centerstand (easy when you get the knack; awkward and embarassing until then), I recognized myself only five days before, as I stared at the BMW’s exhaust ports, my mind filled with New Motorcycle Fog, while Kate’s dad waved his hands in mystical patterns, looking for “air leaks in the headers.” And as I will be in three days, when I pick the bike up from the mechanic after a safety inspection, and try to look like I understand what the mechanic is saying when he talks about not using emery paper to clean the points. So I tried to fulfill my obligations by showing him enough to roll the bike around in his garage, but not enough to start tearing up the Pennsylvania Turnpike. (Dan, if you are reading this, GO TO MOTORCYCLE SAFETY SCHOOL!
So, anyhow, I learned again this weekend that the mental envelope we live in is malleable, and subject to strong molding forces. Some things — like new motorcycles — pull on our perceptions like black holes pull on the green grid lines in computer animations. Only later does the object of desire resolve itself into a real thing, with flecks of rust on the handlebars and a hard-to-polish spot on the exhaust where the previous owner (that’s me) kept burning his boot heel.
I got out of there as quickly as I could, so Dan can enjoy his new bike, not the bike-shaped silhuouette in his garage. And so if he drops the bike, he can do so in privacy. Dan said that he would email me the questions he forgot, and I urged him to go to motorcycle safety school. And now I’m going to go grapple with my own Teutonic phenomenological challenge: Das Bike.