For the recent college grad...
When I graduated college with my philosophy degree, I was lost. There was nothing I would have rather studied, but the doubt my education had instilled in me was crippling at times. Even without a penchant for Nietzsche and Heidegger's existentialism, there was doubt to be found in the proliferation of competing systems of philosophy and the lack of application those systems found in the "real world." I could stay close to this "real world," a frustrating and messy place, or enter academia, a different kind of frustrating and messy place. Even changing myself could seem fruitless given that I would almost certainly never stay fixed and that time and the people around me would slowly alter what I thought, how I felt, what I believed.
I'm sure this post-college wandering is normal. So far, mine has brought to the Hutchinson Public Library (with plenty of places and stories before that!) and, since then, to weeding out the philosophy books at the library. There are a lot of them, and many of them are "personal philosophies."
I'm reviewing great works I know, learning of good works that have been overlooked in my education (partially by necessity), and trying remove quite poor works.
We are each as much a bundle of doubts as we are a bundle of perceptions. Here is a more formal list of the few I intimated above:
- Do I know anything?
- What is truth?
- Can I access that which makes things true?
- Can I think objectively?
- Does it matter if I can't?
- Do I know what is right and wrong?
- What is right or wrong?
- What is the criterion or criteria?
- Is what is right objective?
- What is right or wrong?
- How can I convince others what is right and wrong?
- Do people really respond to logic and evidence?
- Does it matter if they do not?
- Do people really respond to logic and evidence?
- Does anything I do really matter?
- What does it mean for something to matter?
- Is "mattering" good?
- Is "mattering" important?
And so on. Like I said, I have plenty. It's easy to focus on these doubts, although I also have theories (that sounds less dogmatic than answers, and perhaps if we refrain from sounding dogmatic, we'll refrain from holding said theories dogmatically) that I could focus on. Which leads to more doubts:
- How can I know a theory I hold is sound when there are so many competing theories that could be sound instead or as well?
- How can I account for all competing theories?
- Does the publishing (both academic and general) process really work to find good theories or just ones with specific gains to the publisher and the (usually well-meaning) author?
Go ask Alice. Anyways, as an embodied agent (that's a belief, although relatively uncontentious) I exist (another belief, although maybe necessary) in a specific time (probably contiguous with previous memories) with existing beliefs (that's either necessary or sufficient for persons) that are probably somewhat continuous. I also have limited time and ability (probably physical necessities) and existing obligations (which may or may not be necessary), thus I cannot learn everything that may be needed to dispel even some of my doubts.
But this isn't the end of the story. Thanks to how philosophy is often written, reading it exposes us to other thinkers that both agree and disagree. Some of the best philosophy exposes us to psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, statistics, physics, biology, and more. My argument is simple—not only is it acceptable to read in support of what you know, it is good so long as you do not do so exclusively.
First let's start with a relatively easy step. You are an embodied agent. You exist (now) with physical and mental limitations, some of which cannot be overcome. To one degree or another, you will always need food and water, air, sleep, and a suitable environment. You will probably never be able to remember everything. You probably cannot read faster than a certain limit. This is to say nothing of certain mental health requirements like socializing (for many). These physical and mental limitations cause a further temporal limitation—because considering theories requires time and because your physical limitations require time of their own and because your mental limitations either require time of their own or cause you to expend more time considering theories and because you will not live forever and because new theories are generated often, you cannot consider every theory in your limited time. And by considering, I mean thinking about (fastest), reading (probably slower), or talking about and listening to (probably slowest) theories.
Having established that you cannot consider all theories regarding your doubts because of your embodiment, which theories should you consider? None? The most "important?" The most "famous?" There is that nihilistic bent that says none need be considered because none matter. Of course, that is a theory on its own, so it can occupy an awkward position of arguing that no theories regarding what we doubt matter except for the theory that no other theories matter. I think it might be defensible, but it should not be adopted with any less consideration than it devotes to arguing against other theories. There is also a bending towards ignorance that says none need be considered because you can live without them either by acting automatically or by following convention. If you accept either of these, I doubt you would be reading this. Both are open to consideration, and may stand or fall together given how you came to act in the ways you find automatically are probably influenced by convention. If you (probably) believe it is worth considering different theories to assuage your doubts, but cannot consider them all, that leaves our nihilistic "none" need be considered or that at least some do. But which ones?
Something quantifiable would be helpful, like the realization that the more cited a paper is, the more important or useful it is. Granted, it could also be more controversial. Establishing a quantifiable way to determine which theories merit consideration is not inherently bad, although it comes with the same pitfall that not establishing one would: a dark horse theory or work, which is revolutionary and overlooked or which you can connect with may not surface.
If a quantifiable method works for you, and exposes you to new theories, good. For many though, I suspect that is a little too machine and you, the reader, a little too human to keep up with it. If you read what you already know and read what connects to that, you are more likely to ensure that you are reading what connects with you, for one reason or another. In addition, you're going to move, step-wise, through theories. Assuming that philosophers cite works that argue against them and reference works that argue with them, by following the latter, you're going to discover theories with a high degree of initial similarity, but which diverge enough on some details to merit the later author writing a new work. Not all positive citations will lead to theories with a high degree of similarity, as broad agreement is often valued in philosophy, and not all negative citations will lead to theories with a high degree of similarity either, but these are the same chances you would take by jumping from the one highly quantifiably ranked theory to the next. The same chance of dark horses exists as well, but the nature of a dark horse is such that missing it is always a risk.
So, since you cannot consider all theories that would reassure you of your doubts and since following the references in philosophy papers is likely to reveal connected works, the next step is to start. Start where? Where you are familiar, is my answer.
In my list of mental limitations I did not include "interest," or "motivation" but those are also important ones. Your interests are probably not all expansive. Some things motivate you more than others. While discovering new things can be exciting, you also probably already have a sense of ones that motivate you. If interest and motivation are limited, especially more so than a broad desire to "know," than an efficient distribution of your motivation could be important in helping you walk through all of the theories that you can consider.
And since the theories that have interested you in the past are likely to reference closely connected theories, you have a place to go after you start, and since you can't read all written theories, this gives you a natural criterion by which to choose.
Especially after the 2016 US Presidential election, echo chambers, where your beliefs are amplified and reinforced to the exclusion of competing beliefs, have become an important consideration. If you read what you know and use that to find more of what interests you, will you build a coherent set of beliefs that excludes any possibility for revision?
It's possible under almost any circumstances, short of living with crippling doubt, that you hold beliefs you will not revise. Even if you don't realize it. Still, you have a fighting chance so long as you're 1) continuing to encounter works that reference other works and 2) actually reading works that challenge your own theories. (1) because it holds the works you're reading to a certain standard that, hopefully, keep their assertions grounded, or at least, allow you to verify them. (2) because it increases the odds that if you encounter something truthful but counter to your own theories the exposure will not merely reinforce your own beliefs.
Now, it's easy to observe that upon confronting an uncomfortable fact, people will reinforce their existing beliefs even if they are being proven wrong by said fact. You need only watch people to see this. It is also discussed in psychological studies. How do you prevent the effect from closing yourself off from the truth when you encounter an uncomfortable fact that negates your own theories? There is probably no easy answer, but my personal theory is that if you are encounter works that reference other works and you seek out the works referenced, you're going to encounter works critical of what you know. To soften any psychological resistance to countervailing facts if you follow a reference that is critical of a theory you find agreeable, perhaps don't read it right away. Instead, read the critics of that reference first. Although they may not be criticizing the original critic from a position you find agreeable, they might do so from a position that you are not as strongly opposed to. Even if you find the critic's critic despicable, the separation between what you were reading out of personal interest and the criticism of that means there is little risk you'd have accepted the critic's critic's position under other circumstances and are now merely resisting it out of hostility towards facts counter to what you believe. Still, one must try and move forward with an open mind when reading criticisms.
So you're an embodied being, with a life constrained by different limits and probably without the time to sort through all the competing theories about life and its details that exist. Maybe the fact there are all these competing theories even fills you with a paralyzing doubt that makes you suspect none of them can be worth reading, or that if some are, you are unsure which to read. It's okay though, because if you read works that reference other works, and start with the ones you know, you're going to be entering into the web of human knowledge, tied together by infinite connections. So long as you keep following those connections, keep thinking, keep asking, you'll be pulling on the threads of all of human knowledge on a search which binds us all together.