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The Search for Intelligent Life

Students at the back-room Philosophy Institute get in deep.



During the day the upstairs back room at Damen and Division is the office of the youth literacy program Young Chicago Authors. At night, twice a week, the philosophers come out. On this Sunday evening in April, five people sitting on metal folding chairs around a long gray table are immersed in a discussion about freedom.

"Sartre thinks that we really are free to move beyond our upbringing and our past," J.P. Rosensweig tells the rest of us around the table. "His claim might seem a little overdone. He holds that we choose not only our actions but our character as well."

Janet has absorbed this week's reading--ten pages of Mary Warnock's The Philosophy of Sartre--better than I have. I'm still contemplating the extravagance of Sartre's claim as she breaks in to agree with it. "Think about Sisyphus," the mythical figure we'd discussed in an earlier session. "He was condemned forever to roll a huge stone up a hill, watch it roll down, and then roll it up again. But he was still free in his mind. You're still free to make choices."

Rosensweig smiles. "You're putting forth a well-stated Sartrean view. I'm going to put forth an objection. Let's think about a young woman with anorexia. She's pressed by her family and by the magazines she sees to be pretty and thin, so she diets all the time. Now she's actually emaciated, but when she looks in the mirror she thinks she's fat. Are you telling her, 'You're free to start eating'?"

Rosensweig may be the only freelance philosopher in the country. A graduate student on leave from the philosophy department at the University of Chicago, he founded the Philosophy Institute in January 2000 and has been running reading-and-discussion groups ever since under the rubric "Bringing Ideas to Life." A typical group consists of up to 12 people who meet for two hours once a week for eight weeks. Participants have taken up "Exploring the Possibility of Genuine Community" (winter 2000 and again this summer), "Self-Knowledge, Self-Deception, Authenticity" (spring 2000), and "Confronting Central Ethical Questions" (fall 2000). This evening is our eighth and final session on "Meaning in Life, Mortality, Freedom, and Other Issues in Existentialism."

Rosensweig charges $120 per person for the sessions (a sliding scale is available). The Philosophy Institute is growing, he says, but it has yet to produce enough income for him to live on--he makes ends meet by belt tightening and by tutoring high school students in basic math and English. So far he has marketed his classes only through word of mouth, flyers in Wicker Park hangouts, a small mailing list, and Neither the fee nor the somewhat imposing topics have prevented dozens of people from finding him and signing up.

"It's a funny thing in a big city," says Bryan Brickner, a copy editor and former high school teacher who took the class on ethics with his wife, Dianna. "There are so many people around, but it's hard to have good conversations." Dianna, who's in business training and development, had never studied philosophy before, and she was pleasantly surprised. "It's more a conversation than a class," she says, "and for someone who's been in a business world, that's refreshing." Software designer Paul Caswell, who'd also had little contact with philosophy before taking an institute class, says he appreciates the chance to be "in an environment where people will listen to everyone's opinion. It's amazing the shared understanding you can pick up. As a mathematician, it was always lock yourself in a room and try to think it out."

"Yes, she is free." Mike chimes in, defending Sartre against Rosensweig's challenge. "Free to begin the journey."

"You took the words right out of my mouth," says Rosensweig. "That does seem to be the most convincing interpretation of Sartre. It's not realistic to tell a Vietnam vet just to stop being afraid of loud noises, but it is credible to say that he has the power to start changing."

"I believe we all have that potential," says Mike.

Jim is mildly exasperated. "But what is the mechanism by which this could come about?"

Janet refers back to the example of the anorexic young woman: "She's the only one who can do it."

"Jim's question is central," says Rosensweig. "If she is free, she's not necessarily free to feel good about herself right away tomorrow. This gets back to the question of 'practices.' I want to play the guitar, but I'm a rightie. My left hand is weak. I have to strengthen it and that takes time. It's not a one-shot deal."

Mike says, "I think the mechanism occurs on the spot, when she knows that she's free."

Jim is still puzzled. "How do you get to that place?"

Rosensweig says, "This is really good. Existentialism in general, and Sartre in particular, both think there is a mechanism to accomplish what Paul is saying. It's the moment of angst, of earth-shattering realization, like when you really personally realize that you are going to die. Heidegger would say that that realization shakes you out of what he calls the 'they' [the way everyone routinely does things] and throws you back 'into the abyss.' In other words, the confrontation with death jolts you out of your everyday rut and makes you see everything differently."

Rosensweig is in his mid-30s--old enough that his shoulder-length hair is thinning, and young enough that his family still hasn't become reconciled to its length. It took both a pull and a push to get him to act on his beliefs and form the Philosophy Institute.

The pull came from occasional encounters at family gatherings, parties, and other nonphilosophical affairs. "It wasn't unusual for someone to take me aside, or just in the course of conversation ask me some sort of deep philosophical question," he says. "For instance, 'Is there a real right and wrong?' or 'I'm working six days a week, 14 hours a day. How do I decide whether to leave this securities firm? Why are things organized this way anyhow?'

"I'd say a little bit in general about how a person can get some sense of their identity, and how other cultures view work differently from Americans--maybe give them some conceptual tools. I had a sense they appreciated it. This happened a lot." It wasn't so much that they wanted advice from a guru--though Rosensweig is easy to talk to--they just seemed to miss having the opportunity for something more than a casual conversation on a casual topic. What he said was more likely to help them think more clearly about their plans than to drastically alter them.

If the people he met at random wanted to talk, many of his colleagues in academic philosophy didn't. That helped push him away. "In major university philosophy departments today," he says, "80 percent or more of the emphasis is on acquiring information and becoming an expert in the field." His University of Chicago colleague Matt Schwartz describes that process as the systematic examination of "hundreds of articles. You look at the text, schematize the argument, see if the argument is valid [do the conclusions follow from the premises?], and then see if the premises are true. It's a kind of game you're playing."

Rosensweig appreciated the value of the game, but he wanted more. "There's little or no emphasis on relating what you're studying to your own life--it's not institutionally encouraged. I was baffled and flabbergasted by this. I knew experts on ethics who were unethical in their own lives. I knew people who were very knowledgeable about theories of meaning in life who seemed to have a deep emptiness within." Rosensweig wasn't asking for perfection or pat answers; he was asking for a commitment professors rarely have to make, for an acknowledgment that philosophy should affect our personal lives.

In his own life, he recalls being startled by Heidegger's statement that being an authentic person involves constantly questioning and being unsettled. "To me that was completely counterintuitive," he says. "I thought that once I figured out who I was, I'd at least be settled inside. I wouldn't be anxious anymore. But Heidegger said that you're always only partly at home." Over time, Heidegger's view helped Rosensweig live with his own inevitably incomplete plans. The idea of learning to live with uncertainty and contradiction turns up surprisingly often among his students, including a woman debating whether she should take time off between jobs to pursue a personal dream and Paul Caswell, who concluded after one class, "Nobody knows what you should do, so you might as well do what you can."

"Now we're getting down to the meat," says Rosensweig. "How the heck do people change?" The moment of angst may shake you up, but according to Sartre another mechanism is more important. "How does Sartre think this anorexic woman gets there? Let's look at page 113. I'll read a little bit and then say a few words about it: 'If I am very cold it might be thought that the cold was my motive for getting up to put more on the fire. But the cold itself cannot lead me to any action at all, only to a passive acceptance of it. What constitutes my motive for acting is my apprehension of the cold as something to be overcome, as something which I can change.'"

He stops reading. "In other words, as conscious beings we have an imagination. We can imagine stuff that is not actually going on in this room right now. Sartre thinks this is crucial. We're not constrained in our thoughts by the way stuff is happening right here and now. That's why he puts it so strongly--we're all necessarily free because we're all necessarily conscious.

"Now let's put this into practice. As we read, a state of affairs cannot be a motive. Being cold in itself cannot lead me to do anything. It's how I take the cold. I have to see it as something I can do something about.

"So if this anorexic woman follows Sartre's view--in my reconstruction of Sartre--she can't change tomorrow. She does have psychologically ingrained behavior, but she has the potential to imagine herself free of anorexia. As soon as she adopts the viewpoint that it's not insurmountable, that is the beginning of change. Now, people can say Sartre's ideas are just a load of shit, but this is a way to see them as something wise."

Rick Furtak, a PhD student at the University of Chicago who met Rosensweig a couple of years ago in a university course on Henry David Thoreau, likes his approach. Unlike basket weaving or nuclear physics, Furtak says, philosophy isn't optional--we all do it, whether we know it or not. What is right and wrong? What is fair and unfair, just and unjust? How should we spend our time? How do we know we're living in the best way? We all have some sort of answer to these philosophical questions, even if it's just an attitude that we take for granted. To paraphrase economist John Maynard Keynes's famous saying, practical people who imagine they are free of such questions are usually in thrall to some defunct philosopher.

"The Philosophy Institute is a bit like a dance class," says Furtak. "Everybody moves their bodies. A dance teacher can help people do so more gracefully, but it's something they're going to be doing in any case. J.P. is giving people a kind of grace and poise in what they were doing clumsily already." One student says she was motivated to take a class when she found herself in a leadership position on the job. "People were looking to me for answers, they were following my example. That was scary. It makes you want to be the best person you can be. Without a class like this, people just don't stop to ask the big questions."

I'm not quite willing to accept Sartre as wise just yet, so I put in a question. "What if our imagining some nonexistent possibility is itself determined by factors beyond our control? Suppose you think you have chosen your lifestyle freely. And then somebody comes along who knew your grandfather well, and says, 'You know, you walk and talk just exactly like he did.' Things you thought you had chosen were evidently already programmed in there. You thought you were free, but you were determined by genes and example."

Rosensweig says, "Well, there's a whole school, including Hegel and in some ways Nietzsche, which says that that's not a problem. Free will doesn't contradict determinism. It's just the way the world is--one state of affairs is caused by a prior state of affairs. Freedom isn't just randomness or arbitrariness, and the fact that your behavior is caused doesn't mean you didn't have choices.

"I don't think Sartre is saying that everything's determined and that's OK. At times he seems to think there is something in the very nature of consciousness that opens up a gap [in causation]."

At this point, a more academic discourse might well zero in on the odd notion that consciousness can open up a gap in causation without being random or arbitrary. But neither Rosensweig nor the class members want to get that technical. Mike says, "Determinism versus freedom may be a tough philosophical question, but how's it going to affect how you live your life? Freedom--I take freedom."

Rosensweig says, "Indeed. Even determinists can't really believe they have no role at all in leading their own lives. Prominent figures have thought that we need to believe we're free, need to go on as if we are free--although that's different from what Sartre is saying."

He goes on, "This has been a good conversation because people kept pushing the question. Not just saying, 'Oh wow, consciousness, freedom--great.' The question is not just what Sartre said about this, but what of it can I take with me after I leave this room? It's a really important question to continue to push philosophy and philosophers on. If philosophy questions everything, one of the most important questions is how we do the questioning."

Practical-minded Americans have long taken a certain pleasure in prodding academics to do more than merely think. But even people who would defend academic philosophy can hardly be pleased by what passes for deep reflection in popular culture. "There has to be something between Oprah and Wittgenstein," says Jonathan Ellsworth, a U. of C. philosophy graduate student. If there isn't, philosophers may succeed in making their arguments very precise, but they'll seem irrelevant to most people. In Rosensweig's view--which echoes Socrates and the ancient Hellenistic schools of the Stoics and Epicureans--the way to bridge the gap is for professional philosophers to acknowledge that they have a greater obligation than professional chemists or professional literary critics. They should at least try to apply their careful thought to their own lives and their students' lives.

For the Anglo-American philosophical tradition, this is a radical idea. It was radical when Thoreau said it in Walden in 1854, and it remains so today. "To be a philosopher," he wrote in a passage Rosensweig likes to quote, "is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust....

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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