In ‘Welcome to the Agora’, JS Biehl tells us of his first brush with philosophy. It’s a lovely image, the image of this 10-year old boy walking down the street and having a great philosophical revelation. I imagine him wearing a baseball cap and whistling like Ron Howard in the opening sequence of the old Andy Griffith show, Opie learning to make sense of the world around him. Here’s the thing about Opie, though, and about ten-year old Joe, and about kids in general: they have the time to wonder, to imagine, to ask what-if…? When we’re in our 20s, we have time to wonder only if we are fortunate enough, as Joe and I were, to be in school and to have wondering be a part of the requirements of our schooling.
Where does the wonder go? Well, Opie grows up, gets busy, has less time to wander and wonder and whistle. This is no great insight and, as Biehl writes, “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.” Consider, though, that as I write this, my running shoes are by the door; I am meeting a friend in a little while for a run. I do this several times a week. Like many adults, I make time in my daily and weekly routines for physical exercise. But most adults don’t make mental exercise a priority. They make time to run laps around the agora, but they don’t make time to visit it.
When I was in graduate school, we had great fun playing with questions of necessity and sufficiency- what criteria does an activity need to meet in order to qualify as a sport? (We never did settle on an answer!) A few weeks ago, my family and several others were at the local ice cream parlor and I tried to play a version of this game with them- what criteria, I asked the assembled group, would something need to meet in order to qualify as a dessert? The kids got a kick out of it and they all played along- Opie and Joe at the ice cream stand, free to wonder as they like. The majority of the adults at the table scoffed at the question, though, and went back to their talk of local politics, which kids had which teachers next year, etc. It’s a silly question, to be sure, and not one that matters or ought to matter to any of us. So the adults ignored it and went back to things that do matter. But is it any less meaningful than running in a large circle through my neighborhood or on a machine in a gym? We make time for physical exercise because we are scared of the alternatives—frailty, heart disease, death. We don’t make time for mental exercise because we don’t see it as worth the opportunity cost.
How can we help people make the time to wonder? If we take seriously the parallel with physical exercise, we might try to scare them, as our doctors scare us into physical exercise. This would involve showing them that their wellbeing is at stake, that less mental acuity means greater chances of being conned—by telemarketers, by stockbrokers, by conniving paramours, by politicians. This is all true, but I doubt that such scare tactics would promote a sense of wonder- they would make people more suspicious, not more ponderous.
The better strategy, I think, is to help them remember that it feels good to wonder, just as it feels good to walk or run or bike, and to create low-cost opportunities for them to do it. I’m not talking here about podcasts and youtube channels (mental exercise is different than physical exercise in that it requires interaction with other), but about philosophical discussions in the places people go anyway. How about guest bartenders and baristas who will facilitate conversations about ethics and aesthetics as they pull and pour and froth? Can you picture a downtown bar with a house philosopher instead of a house DJ? No one blinks at chess games in the park; why not philosophy games? We could replace those inane (and not a little scary) costumed characters in Times Square with costumed philosophers—imagine stopping in front of the M&M store to have a discussion with Aristotle on the importance of friendship!
We can also embark on social awareness campaigns. I loved the MTA’s Poetry in Motion campaign, and Arts in Transit is a wonderful addition. But where is Philosophy in Motion? Where is Thinking in Transit? What would be more perfect than reading about Zeno on the paradox of motion as you sit in traffic? Can you imagine PSAs on your television and radio that promote the virtues of philosophical engagement? A roving NY1 philosopher, perhaps? Is Randy Cohen looking for work?
In a slightly less cheeky vein, I submit that CUNY and NYU and Columbia and all of the other colleges and universities in the five boroughs have an obligation to bring their institutional resources to bear on the problem. At Bard College, where I teach, we regard it as part of our mission to promote a critically engaged citizenry: the Bard High School/Early Colleges allow students to begin a college liberal arts curriculum after 10th grade, the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities makes available at no cost college-level courses in the humanities for people who did not have the opportunity to attend college, and the Bard Prison Initiative offers AA and BA programs to incarcerated men and women throughout New York State. Individuals can and should promote philosophical engagement where we can; educational institutions have a moral obligation to do so.
In short: adults need to make time for mental exercise as well as physical exercise and not enough of them do so. I’ve sketched a few ways of doing this, some grassroots, some silly, some serious. I’d love to hear what other ideas are out there—how would you move philosophy out of the classroom and into the streets?