A friend from my Peace Corps days recently emailed me:
So I’m thinking my next self improvement project is wrapping my mind around the study of philosophy. Having degrees in economics and political science, I was exposed to philosophical principles but didn’t pay much attention to them. I was too busy drinking and chasing women at the time. No regrets.
Nonetheless, I look to you for sage advice on where and how to begin my study. I’m sitting at a bar thinking how I should finally read John Rawls A Theory of Justice which has came up often in poli sci discussions and seems like something I should start on as I care about being a principled human.
I emailed him back:
I too got interested in philosophy later in life. Rawls' theory about creating a society behind a "veil of ignorance" is one I really like. I recommend trying to find contemporary philosophers like Peter Singer or A.C. Grayling rather than trying to delve into the famous philosophers of antiquity. You'll find that with almost any philosopher before the 20th century that they are just obsessed with questions about god, which I find quite dull. I'm also uninterested in questions like "do we exist?" (yes, of course we do, don't be silly) or "does free will exist?" (well, you clearly have free will in a way that a table doesn’t). There are some people on YouTube doing some interesting things with philosophy, I recommend Philosophy Tube and ContraPoints.
Now at the time I wrote that I thought I was recommending videos by a transgendered woman, Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints, and videos by a man, Oliver Thorn of Philosophy Tube. However it turns out that Thorn had transitioned a year ago and came out in the most recent video as a transwoman, now going by the name Abigail Thorn.
Less than one percent of the population identifies as trans, yet when I picked two YouTube philosophers to recommend, they both turned out to be trans. What were the odds? Was it more than chance?
In her most recent video Abigail talks (through a proxy) about the first video that she ever made, which was about René Descartes. Descartes is best known for his thought experiment where he supposes a demon is deceiving him about the entire world around him. What could Descartes know for sure what is true? Seemingly nothing. Yet, the fact that he is thinking about this question at all shows that his mind must exist. It is from here that we get Descartes’ famous maxim Cogito, ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am." Descartes also thought that in a world full of doubt, we should put our faith in god. This is a kind of maddening viewpoint for an atheist such as myself.
Nowadays though Abigail is more interested in the work of Audre Lorde, a black lesbian communist who wrote about her body, exploring other women’s bodies and being seen. This is the complete opposite of Descartes who took it for granted that he was seen by others and doubted whether his own body even existed.
As I said in my email, I find the navel gazing by philosophers like Descartes kind of dull. Questions about identity and society are much more interesting to me. And interesting questions about these topics tend to be raised by people who don’t conform to conservative expectations of how the world should work.
I haven’t faced the kind of struggles that Abigail and Natalie have. My birth certificate says male and I’ve never thought it should say anything else. I’ve only ever been interested in having relationships with girls. I haven’t always been happy but I’ve never struggled with suicidal thoughts. This may sound silly but I have a great defense against suicide: I’m afraid of dying. I’ve been assaulted but I’ve never been the subject of abuse. The only real identity change I ever went through was going from a Christian to an atheist and that wasn’t much of a struggle. I never really looked to the religion for answers and going to church was always a drag.
All of this makes for a comfortable life for me, but it doesn’t make for good philosophy. Through their videos you can see Abigail and Natalie struggle with these topics. It’s compelling.
The Philosophy Book gives introductions to philosophers from Thales of Miletus, born 624BCE, to contemporary philosophers. The first woman doesn’t appear in the book till page 175--Mary Wollstonecraft, who was born 1759. Philosophy has long been the domain of cismen. This is not because only they had something to say, it’s about who society chooses to listen to and preserve. Socrates thought writing was terrible and would lead to faulty memories. Yet we know a lot about him because multiple other philosophers wrote down his dialogues. Meanwhile we know none of the ideas of Hypatia of Alexandria, who definitely did write things down but none of her writings were preserved after a Christian mob murdered her.
A generation ago the musing of transexual thinkers would be mostly confined to niche bookstores that I would probably never go to. Now the internet allows people like Natalie and Abigail to bypass cultural gatekeepers and it has led to interesting recreation of what philosophy can be. The internet also makes it easy for mobs to run decentralized campaigns of harassment, which both women have faced. And then I get an interesting video about online harassment. Hun. Feels somewhat exploitative when framed that way.
Alright this essay is getting away from me here. YouTube’s policy of “demonetizing” videos (read: ripping off creators) is a talk for another time. Think twice before you join an online mob, maybe watch some philosophy videos instead.