I was no more than ten years old when, walking home from school, I had a philosophical epiphany: everything exists. The thought struck with the force of a revelation and was utterly unlike any previous experience of learning some new thing (even something extraordinary, as when I learned that the Mets had traded Tom Seaver). Nor was it a case of acquiring an ability to do some particular thing, such as ice skate or throw a perfect spiral. Instead, I unlocked a new way of conceiving reality, and equipped with that a whole range of new possibilities, of things I might think or do, came into view.
Among the things I eventually did do was pursue my growing love of philosophy, picking up a Ph.D. along the way. During my education I would learn that my school-boy insight was an answer to a kind of question philosophers call ‘ontological,’ a question that concerns the nature of reality, of what exists. In fact it was an answer to the most simple and basic ontological question: What is there? I also learned that my answer was, as you might have guessed, equally simple. As the twentieth century American philosopher, W. V. O. Quine put it, to answer ‘everything’ “is merely to say that there is what there is,” and who would deny that? The profundity of my childhood insight turned out to be no more than a trivial truth.
The human mind achieves breakthroughs in understanding relative to its development and experience. The thought that so powerfully changed my perspective in childhood now lay inert in my twenties. Such is the fate of many of our beliefs, even, perhaps especially, our most cherished convictions: we come to take them as givens, as unassailable and without need of further reflection or revision; as a result they atrophy and eventually die or devolve into dogma. And why shouldn’t they? Our ideas are not so dissimilar from our bodies; neither is likely to remain vital without proper exercise and both are eminently susceptible to corruption.
Unfortunately, the decline of our ideas is not as easy to see as the decline of our bodies and as a consequence we rarely take the care with the former that we do with the latter. We need to take our ideas and conceptions for a walk around the block, a run through the park, or a bike ride along the river. Sometimes we need to consult with others that have a different perspective. Sometimes we need to philosophize. In the case of my rather abstract ontological judgment, the study and discussion of philosophical work led me to a deeper, richer conception of what it might mean for everything to be. We each engage reality armed with five senses and a loaded conceptual repertoire. The (almost) uniform influence evolution has had on the senses leads to a shared reality of green grass and blue skies (and quite a bit more besides); the (often) variable influence experience has had on our concepts and the convictions that grow from them leads some people to see reality populated by open-minded progressives and close-minded reactionaries while their neighbors see only sober-minded guardians of stability and intoxicated radicals. Cases of existential disagreement are common, the most infamous among them being the small matter of whether the inventory of reality includes God, as the faithful assert, or doesn’t, as atheists maintain. Which is the ‘real’ reality? In one very significant sense they all are: each one of us brings our peculiar convictions into that shared reality of blue sky and green grass and we make choices and act on the basis of them. Liberals may not believe what conservatives believe, but both have to reckon with the choices of the other. Atheists may deny the existence of God but they can’t deny the existence of theists. What we believe makes all the difference, and not just to ourselves.
Because our beliefs are not strictly a private affair, because they influence our behavior and therefore impact others, it behooves us to talk to each other about them, to reflect on the reasons why we believe what we do and to give a fair hearing to the reasons offered by others for why we should change our minds. This is not to say that we will, or even that we should change our minds. If our ideas and beliefs are as sound as we take them to be then they will survive the scrutiny. If, on the other hand, they crumble in the face of reasoned challenge, if we become convinced that what we once believed we no longer should, then so much the better for us.
Patient reflection and open discussion find their greatest value not in the case of ‘big’ philosophical ideas, however, but with respect to those ideas around which we attempt to structure our social lives, ideas about community, education, law, economics, and responsibility, to name only a few. If we allow our beliefs about these matters to become stale and rigid we will only see the possibility of tinkering with them at the margins and debating with each other about how best to implement them. If we instead put our ‘received wisdom’ to the test, if we ask just what, say, education, or economic opportunity could be, we might be rewarded with a host of new opportunities and possibilities that only become apparent when we reevaluate and reconceive what we had previously taken for granted.
In his influential essay On Liberty, the nineteenth century English philosopher John Stuart Mill argued passionately for not only the freedom but the willingness to engage in just this kind of open discussion of our most basic beliefs about life and society, for the creation of, and respect for, what has been called the marketplace of ideas. Only within such a forum, he believed, could a community reasonably hope that the most fruitful and mutually beneficial beliefs would carry the day.
Mill’s marketplace was not itself a new proposal. As he noted, the long-standing model for such an exchange of reasons for and against certain ideas and beliefs was to be found in the dialogues of Plato. Those great works, which are still read for profit today, usually find the character of Socrates encountering fellow citizens in the agora, the ancient Greek gathering place where goods were exchanged and the issues of the day debated.
Every city and every generation needs its agora, its place to assemble and to reconsider, reassess, and if necessary, reconceive their answer to the fundamental question of how to live. I encourage my fellow philosophers—and especially my fellow New Yorkers—to consider the Gotham Philosophical Society to be just such a place.
Joseph Stephen Biehl