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Against pants

We hear it from the cradle to the grave, one overarching demand to warm our bodies (and souls) and cover our natural state: Wear pants. No exceptions. Put your legs in the holes and zip the fly, and you will be one of us.

If we were all created equal, the meaning of pantsed and depantsed would be self-explanatory. Yet this is far from the case: Some of us prefer grievously ripped jeans, others going “commando.” Some of us cannot afford pants at all.

And the debate is hardly made easier by all the painful contradictions inherent in the social strata. Why are we given leave to wear bikini bottoms under all circumstances on the beach, and yet only in the classrooms of the most permissive professors? Why does this double standard apply only to women? Why can I walk naked through a dorm but not through an apartment building?

The sad truth is that these questions are irresolvable by even such a one as I. If you desire pants tight or loose-fitting, chic or rakishly outmoded, the path is an easy one. But if you yearn for Edenic nakedness and seek the truth of pants, you must look within.

 


 

The above seems to me a fair representation of most undergraduate philosophizing. Replace “pants” with “free will,” “God” or “absolute morality,” and it’s quite common. It is, to my mind, elegantly put together. The sentences follow one another with a semblance of logic. The purpose of the whole is not immediately clear, but it all does a marvelous job of smelling as if a point is buried somewhere. You will read it several times.

This is the stuff of the Intellectual Discussion, of amazing late-night conversations and the vast majority of mind-blowings; when we complain that Duke is not smart enough, we usually mean we would like more of this.

And I love it like I love David Gray and The O.C. It filled whole days of high school for me; it cemented friendships and fomented crushes; it inspired my Yale application essay on Why I Want to Major in Philosophy, where I wrote something like, “I want to search for the truth with a flashlight instead of a candle.”

But Yale rejected me. At Duke I did manage to pick up a minor in the subject, and I’ve learned one overarching thing: Philosophy, properly taught, is not fun. And conversely, if it is fun, if it regularly amazes us with its deepness, it is probably not philosophy.

My six philosophy classes have been the most rigorous I’ve had here; in them, I read things like the following, randomly chosen from P.F. Strawson’s On Freedom and Resentment:

“The human commitment to participation in ordinary inter-personal relationships is, I think, too thoroughgoing and deeply rooted for us to take seriously the thought that a general theoretical conviction might so change our world that, in it, there were no longer any such things as inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them; and being involved in inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them precisely is being exposed to the range of reactive attitudes and feelings that is in question.”

Please don’t take my cut-and-pasting of that sentence as an idle boast. It’s not that I get it and you don’t: I had severe difficulty with readings like that, and I still do. I mean that on a scale from Strawson to “I got so drunk last night,” our common talk on the Big Questions falls well on the latter end. Those conversations rarely move like legitimate philosophy.

Each mode of conversation can inspire a love of the game, but the loves are of entirely different sorts. The first mode is for the uncomplicated love you find on barstools and SportsCenter; the second is for 6 a.m. sessions in the film room. In fact, Terrell Owens’ love for football is a lot like a real philosopher’s love for his scholarship: They both recognize that their fields usually bruise you, sometimes break your bones, and occasionally leave you exhilarated. But only occasionally.

We, on the other hand, are lucky enough to be young and free to enjoy the Big Questions. Most of us, though, do far more than that. We conflate pants and Strawson, and we use philosophy to preen. We remark, openly or subtly, on our superiority. We tangle up our talk in self-seriousness and self-congratulation.

I do it. I try not to. And if I pass by a cluster conversing on the afterlife, I’d like to offer the following advice:

“You are not breaking ground. You are not deep. You are not, God help you, ‘seekers.’ You are entertaining yourselves.”

Entertainment is wonderful, but in high doses it kills. How many of us expect to be entertained by this paper, entertained by our classes, entertained by our friends, entertained all the way to the grave with pauses only for sleep? How many of us enjoy staring into the abyss and, in the words of Lionel Trilling, “commending it for being a singularly dark and fascinatingly contoured abyss, one sure to survive as an object of edifying contemplation for years to come.” That’s college.

In college, most of us agree that philosophy is good. And relaxation is good. So in our ignorance we mix the two together, and we choke without knowing it.

Rob Goodman is a Trinity senior. His column appears Fridays.

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