Philosophers rather than plumbers

The danger of reducing culture to worldview is that we may miss the most distinctive thing about culture, which is that cultural goods have a life of their own. They reshape the world in unpredictable ways.

The language of worldview tends to imply, to paraphrase the Catholic writer Richard Rohr, that we can think ourselves into new ways of behaving. But that is not the way culture works. Culture helps us behave ourselves into new ways of thinking. The risk in thinking “worldviewishly” is that we will start to think that the best way to change culture is to analyze it. We will start worldview academies, host worldview seminars, write worldview books. These may have some real value if they help us understand the horizons that our culture shapes, but they cannot substitute for the creation of real cultural goods. And they will subtly tend to produce philosophers rather than plumbers, abstract thinkers instead of artists and artisans.

— Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling

A pet is the obvious substitute

This terrible need to be needed often finds its outlet in pampering an animal. To learn that someone is “fond of animals” tells us very little until we know in what way. For there are two ways. On the one hand the higher and domesticated animal is, so to speak, a “bridge” between us and the rest of nature. We all at times feel somewhat painfully our human isolation from the subhuman world— the atrophy of instinct which our intelligence entails, our excessive self-consciousness, the innumerable complexities of our situation, our inability to live in the present. If only we could shuffle it all off! We must not— and incidentally we can’t— become beasts. But we can be with a beast. It is personal enough to give the word with a real meaning; yet it remains very largely an unconscious little bundle of biological impulses. It has three legs in nature’s world and one in ours. It is a link, an ambassador. Who would not wish, as Bosanquet put it, “to have a representative at the court of Pan”? Man with dog closes a gap in the universe. But of course animals are often used in a worse fashion. If you need to be needed and if your family, very properly, decline to need you, a pet is the obvious substitute. You can keep it all its life in need of you. You can keep it permanently infantile, reduce it to permanent invalidism, cut it off from all genuine animal well-being, and compensate for this by creating needs for countless little indulgences which only you can grant.

— C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves 

The most human science

“Doctors,” Voltaire wrote, “are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, in human beings of whom they know nothing.” The pivotal word in this scathing description is know. The discipline of medicine concerns the manipulation of knowledge under uncertainty. Abstract away the smell of rubbing alcohol and bleach; forget the adjustable beds and ward signs and the gleaming granite of hospital lobbies; erase, for a moment, the many corporeal indignities of a man in a blue cotton gown in a room or the doctor trying to heal him— and you have a discipline that is still learning to reconcile pure knowledge with real knowledge. The “youngest science” is also the most human science. It might well be the most beautiful and fragile thing that we do.

— Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Laws of Medicine: Field Notes from an Uncertain Science 

Do I make people laugh because I want them to enjoy themselves or because I want them to think that I’m funny?

Its form excludes the content

While I do not know exactly what content was once carried in the smoke signals of American Indians, I can safely guess that it did not include philosophical argument. Puffs of smoke are insufficiently complex to express ideas on the nature of existence, and even if they were not, a Cherokee philosopher would run short of either wood or blankets long before he reached his second axiom. You cannot use smoke to do philosophy. Its form excludes the content.

To take an example closer to home: As I suggested earlier, it is implausible to imagine that anyone like our twenty-seventh President, the multi-chinned, three-hundred-pound William Howard Taft, could be put forward as a presidential candidate in today’s world. The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or on the radio or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. the grossness of a three-hundred-pound image, even a talking one, would easily overwhelm any logical or spiritual subtleties conveyed by speech. For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. The emergence of the image-manager in the political arena and the concomitant decline of the speech writer attest to the fact that television demands a different kind of content from other media. You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.

–Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Precisely one’s real life

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.

— C.S. Lewis

Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it’s more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera.But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life–outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

— David Foster Wallace, The String Theory