Understanding

My senior thesis was 100 pages long. Basically it amounted to a theory about epistemology — a theory about thinking. The title conveys my slightly ambitious goal (I was 22): ‘Objectivity’ vs. ‘Subjectivity’: A Continental and Western Interpretation of Knowledge.

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Nowadays, I can summarize the whole point in a sentence or so: we over-simplify the way we talk about thinking and knowledge and in doing so we talk past each other.

It used to really bother me how arrogant the analytic philosophers were with their logic, and at the same time, the existentialist and other continental philosophers were too loosey-goosey.

I thought by mashing them together, I could create a grand theory.

The core of the theory was that purely objective scientific-type knowledge is limited, and by definition incomplete (via Gödel), and that it must be supplemented with subjectivity. Another way of saying this is that experience matters in a deep and meaningful way.

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An example that comes to mind is parenthood. I don’t have kids, but lots of my friends do. As one-by-one they have transitioned from non-parenthood to parenthood, they talk about crossing a threshold, on the other side of which they have a completely different understanding. They aren’t referring to the details of the facts about what it means to be a parent, but rather the actual experience itself. It could be that it is the feelings involved, but I think it is probably a bunch of stuff — and 22 year-old philosopher-me looked to phenomenological philosophers like Heidegger and others to describe this stuff.

Today, I would sum it up by saying that experiencing something changes our understanding in a deep and meaningful way.

There were lots of reasons why I didn’t pursue a Phd in Philosophy after undergrad. Sure, I had a fancy Wall Street job waiting after my Junior summer internship. But I also realized at the time that I hadn’t really lived enough or experienced enough to truly think.

More than a decade later, I am appreciative of that decision, because it was right. I didn’t know much. And the more I live, the more I realize I still don’t know that much.

But I am lucky to have had some pretty cool experiences that now create the content of thoughts that I wasn’t able to think about before.

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What sparked this post was President Obama’s speech about Trayvon Martin. This part jumped out:

in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.

And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

It reminded me of my college thesis. What the President was saying is that I, as a white dude in my 30’s, literally can’t understand what he thinks about this issue. I have not lived those experiences, and no matter what I read about them, or even if I memorized all the facts about those experiences, I am missing a lot.

The limits here are clearly about things like emotions, but I think it is something deeper. Something about a kind of understanding that really is rooted in a connectedness to the things that happen in our lives. This is probably similar to Heidegger’s concept of being-in-the-world, but it is also something we understand in plain English.

You had to be there…

You wouldn’t understand…

And like the President said, these experiences deeply inform the way we see the world.

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Perhaps someday I’ll finish my thesis, but for now, I’ll end with this:

The current situation around Trayvon Martin is emblematic of issues that are complex, nuanced and personal. We literally can’t understand someone’s perspective without having been in their shoes, but we can listen. We can learn. We can try our best to empathize.

It is through this kind of sharing, listening and dialogue that we can continue to progress as individuals and a country.

The cool thing is, we will:

As difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. I doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.

And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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