Cornel West on Philosophy

Some helpful words from Cornell West – though philosophy often lingers in the abstract, its value is in its connection  with the concrete.

“Philosophizing [should] be linked to existentially concrete situations, wrestling with decision, commitment, actualized possibility[,] realized potential..the suffering beings and the loving beings that we are and can be.”

Cornel West, “On My Intellectual Vocation”

The Fallacy of an Idealized Past

Grass is greener on the other side
Photo by Dimitar Yanchev on Unsplash

I love history. Throughout my studies in mathematics, theology, and philosophy, my greatest interests have been in historical people, events, and ideas. For me, studying the past is a means to interpret the present and to guide the future. An understanding of history sheds light on today’s controversies, shortcomings, and problems.

But, a temptation I’ve had to fight – an one I find in others as well – is to confront problems in the present by appealing to an idealized past. Within the context of the church, there exists within each generation those who find the contemporary church leaving much to be desired – and the solution is to return to the model of church as found in Acts. In Western philosophy, there is little consensus – if any – regarding the value and purpose of the former “Queen of the Sciences.” One answer to this existential crisis has been a desire to return to philosophy as “the love of wisdom” – making Plato relevant in the 21st century. And so on.

While I see great value learning from the past, I feel such a temptation fails to consider the context, struggles, economics, politics – everything that made up the past culture’s air one breathed – that shaped the historical ideas, events, and people we study today.

For instance, it is common for one dissatisfied with the today’s church to use Acts 2:42-47 as the model (or goal) on which to start a new church. This is well and good – indeed we see in the early church a model by which a church ought to exist. However, in longing for that of the past we can easily ignore the context of that past. That is, early Christians lived in a completely different political, economic, sociological structure – one vastly different from today’s context of the American church. To appeal to an idealized early church such that such context is ignored risks making a square fit in a round hole.

Again, I firmly believe that studying the past is essential to correcting the problems of today. Yet, viewing history through rose-colored lenses leads only to further frustration and disappointment with the present. It becomes a standard by which the present cannot attain. Philosophy may never look as it did in Greco-Roman times (or whatever one views as philosophy’s golden age) – and that can be lamented, but that does not mean philosophy is dead or irrelevant in a STEM-dominated age. Philosophy can address, confront, and answer the problems of the 21st century; it just won’t look as it did in the day of Socrates. The church today can reflect the New Testament church (and it should!), but what that looks like in practice (community, gathering, etc.) will look differently from the ancient church.

Appealing to the past requires that we understand (to the best of our ability) the context, the questions, the problems…the cultural air…of that (or whom) we’re studying. What are principles we can glean that transcends spatial-time barriers? What are truths that are true regardless of geography and epoch? Finally, how can we take these principles and truths and fit our 21st century lives around them?

This won’t be easy, but when as it ever been?


Disclaimer: When reading my posts, please don’t read them as complete, self-contained works. I don’t intend them to be so. My posts are not final solutions to problems I observe or fully thought out ideas. Rather, I intend my posts to be viewed as my fleshing out of ideas or thoughts. Knowing is a journeya life-long process…as such, my posts are but glimpses of my own journey.

Place, Knowing, and LSU Football

I recently posted the following on Facebook – the day after adopted-Cajun Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy – reminiscing on how special the 2019 season has been for LSU football…and for me.

This LSU Football season has been special…Edwards-Helaire, Burrow, Orgeron, Moss, and so many more with their stories and accomplishments has made this a one of a kind season. But it’s been a special season for another reason, I’ve watched every game with Libby and Emma. They’ve blossomed as true Tiger fans. They scream and yell during tense moments, get anxious….all the emotions of fans who are all in. They’ve closely followed Burrow’s Heisman race, love Coach O, and smile at everything LSU. 

This scene you see in the picture literally has not changed since game 1. This season has been special because of the bonding I’ve had with my daughters. 2019 will be remembered for a long time.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve often pondered the question, “Why does LSU – particularly LSU football – mean so much to me?” I’ve been in Louisville for almost two decades, having moved from Louisiana at the turn of the new millennium. I met my wife here, bought a house, raised a family of three daughters, and earned two degrees in Louisville. Why in the world do I still root for the Tigers, much less still get excited about something that’s just a game (let’s face it, in the grand scheme of things, football is just a game)?

Part of why I root for LSU still is that I enjoy football, and I’ve been a fan of LSU since day one of my life. But, as my sports fandom has been tempered with increasing age and responsibilities, I’ve come to realize that cheering for LSU is more than just cheering for a team. That is, LSU has come to represent something much more to me.

I’ve always loved my home state, but I’ve never felt that I fit in. I’ve never been hunting in my life (not by choice), I didn’t catch my first fish until I was 18, and – by and large – I’m just not an outdoorsman. (I realize that I’m making a rather broad generalization of Louisianans; not all who live in Louisiana are outdoors people. However, I do believe that it’s safe to say that a large majority of Louisiana residents do identify with outdoors activities like hunting, fishing, etc.) When I moved to Louisville, I saw it as an exciting opportunity to live way from home – somewhere with more opportunity and excitement.

Yet, in my middle-age, I’ve come full-circle. There was a period of time where I longed for (more like ached for) home. I wanted to learn more about my home state, about my parents’ history, and to recover long-lost memories. I even sought for jobs in my home state (unsuccessfully). Now, as I’ve grown content with Louisville as my home, I still look back on Louisiana fondly. More so, I see Louisiana – my home – as integral in shaping who I am.

I find the late-30s and early 40-s to be a trying time for a person – it’s like reliving middle school all over again, except you’re taller, heavier, and have less hair. This period of life was (and has been) a time of rediscovering who I am. For so long I’d been working towards a dream – a goal, and all of a sudden I’m faced with an existential crisis of sorts.

  • What has all that I’ve done mean? Some career goals hadn’t worked out, and the reality of the corporate world was…well…I’m not a fan.
  • What have I missed out on? They say kids grow like weeds, and do they! I met my wife on the first day of orientation for our Master’s degree (which took 9 years to complete). After my Master’s, I jumped into a PhD, and after that, I jumped feet first into working toward a full-time teaching position. It hit me all of sudden that my daughters – who were born during my Master’s degree – were young women entering middle school and high school. Have I done enough as a father?
  • Have I provided for my wife as I should? Two degrees and a career path takes a lot of energy and attention. Have I been the husband my wife deserves?
  • Finally, who am I? I felt my heart torn between two homes – Louisiana and Louisville. Family and friends knew me in my formative years – and much of what they remember of me is my first 23 years of life. Those I’ve met in Louisville essentially know me as what I’ve become as an adult – they know me now, a sort of truncated version of me. How do the two connect?

In the midst of all this mess, I’ve come to a reconciliation of sorts of my one heart/two homes existence. I can’t tell you why or how, but I’m at a place where I don’t see my past as something to merely remember (that is, my past is in the past); rather, my past – where I grew up, who I knew (and know), etc. – informs me of who I am today. No matter how how hard I move forward toward a goal – no matter how far I progress, every time I turn around, my past is still there. I can’t – you can’t – avoid or ignore your past; I can’t grow or progress out of my past. I may not be the same person I was when I lived in Louisiana, but in a way, I am still that person. It’s a Theseusian conundrum – I’m different but the same, and you know what? I’m at peace with that.

I’m a Louisvillian now. I’ve lived in Kentucky for two decades – long enough to where Louisville is home. I remember buildings that no longer exists; businesses that are now but a memory; and people who once graced these streets now abiding somewhere else. I’ve lived in Louisville long enough to have memories of the way things were. However, no matter how long I live here, I’ll always be a Louisianan. Louisville is home, but Louisiana is home. Louisiana what made me who I am today, Louisville is who I am today and will be tomorrow. The two are not mutually exclusive, but intimate parts of one whole – me.

So, when I cheer for LSU football (and this year, who can’t?!), it’s more than a team I’m rooting for – it’s my heritage; my home; my family and friends; and it’s the memories and experiences that will always stay with me.

Geaux Tigers.

Knowing and Being Known: Introductory Thoughts

I did not begin studying philosophy until I was 4 years into my Masters degree (which took me 8 years and 11 months to complete). For the longest time I viewed philosophy as a discipline for really smart people. However, as I look back on my life, I believe I didn’t give philosophy the time of day because I thought it was boring — a musty relic of academic disciplines. I was spontaneous (or so I thought)—I didn’t want to be “stuck” in one place; rather, I wanted to travel, to see the world, and to be invested in something bigger than myself. Philosophy did not fit the bill.

Little did I know at this time, though, that the questions and longings I had were (in part) philosophical in nature. The last two years of my college career was a period of deep anxiety and, at times, depression.[1] I recall a prayer that I repeated rather often during this time of my life—that I would know God. I longed to know God beyond the mere intellect; however, I didn’t know how else to say what I longed for other than stressing the word ‘know’ to entail a fuller, substantive, and deeper sense of knowing God. Continue reading

Straw Man Introductions

How often do we as academic writers set up straw men scenarios in our introductions in order to establish the relevance of our thesis? The introduction is just as important as the body of the work; set your opening scenario in its proper context. The more you force the relevance of your thesis, the less likely it connects with reality.

Is Philosophy Work? Josef Piper vs. Donald Trump on Education and Work

Amidst the fury over the US government’s handling of immigrant families, news came out of Washington this week that President Trump is considering merging the Department of Education with the Department of Labor. Erin Dooley with ABC News quotes Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney:

They’re doing the same thing…Trying to get people ready for the workforce, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s vocational training – but all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?

While there are many kicking back at Trump’s suggestion, if educators were honest with themselves, there has been a growing trend in higher education to tie higher education to the nation’s workforce – analogous to the way the minor leagues feed into MLB teams. In short, education has been relegated to preparing citizens entering, or those seeking to enhance or relocate, in the workforce.

Continue reading

Why Philosophy?: Some Initial Thoughts on Philosophy’s Value

The following question was recently posted in a forum on Facebook:

How would you argue that knowing philosophy, both Christian and secular, is important for the enrichment of Christian life?

The question is a valid one, particularly when one considers how modern philosophy has sought to discredit many of the claims of Christianity. However, just because some philosophers have used philosophy against Christianity doesn’t mean that philosophy itself is the problem. Rather, it is the philosopher. That is, philosophy (in part) is the pursuit of and application of wisdom–of truth. Continue reading

On Originality

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. – C. S. Lewis