Philosophical Journalism

Philosophical journalists would be an interesting breed. I don’t mean bent, bearded men toting reporters’ notebooks and tape recorders stumbling across Capital Hill–although that would be interesting. Nor do I mean reporters jabbing politicians with barbs about how the latest bill violates Kant’s categorical imperative. Instead, I imagine people curious to see what other people think, people who like asking questions about our basic assumptions.

Today, I watched a documentary called the “Nature of Existence.” The filmmaker, named Roger Nygard, chronicles answers to those “big questions”–like the meaning of life–by interviewing people from around the world, including hard-core Indian ascetics, fiery evangelists, physicists, artists, and waitresses. Some dash off the questions with a humorous observation, others admit their own ignorance, and some weave stories substantiated by absolute conviction.

His methods are those of a journalist, but his focus is on first principles, the realm of the philosopher.

Scanning titles in the non-fiction and creative nonfiction shelves at bookstores, I realize modern readers still have a lot of questions. We like to pretend we are practical these days, zeroed in on the nuts and bolts of economics and applied science. But I feel we only use new disciplines to fill an age-old void: purpose and meaning.

Life can be terrifying and cold and we want wisdom to warm us.  Struck by disease, we may pick up one of the numerous memoirs or self-help books to structure our new despair into something coherent. Perhaps a spouse dies, or a child: economics alone will not bring us peace. In a way, this is a no-brainer. Imagine going to a funeral and hearing about the new materials morticians use to make caskets or the best way to invest our new inheritance. Such information has its place, but it’s not there.

I think the tools of philosopher are dusty. Few people slog through Aristotle and Heidegger and reflect on the meaning of existence from an armchair when careers and social obligations impose responsibilities. Moreover, we never have a chance to think: television, smart phones, and iPods assure a constant distraction. Lastly, our culture does not respect philosophy. It doesn’t provide a job or a material payoff, it only forces us to think harder and longer on things that most people don’t bother with at all. Some people even find it annoying, much like the Athenians found Socrates.

But sooner or later, big questions do come to most of us and we need answers.

Perhaps the tools of the journalist are more effective for the modern age: researching issues, hitting the street with questions, collecting responses, and organizing them into an interesting narrative. But rather than the latest war, the stories could focus on the notion of war itself or the claims of justice that underpin it. A lot of creative nonfiction tries to do this, using modern events to propel readers into something deeper about the nature of existence, something that approaches a universal or eternal. Some authors say they search for “truth” in the facts. I wonder if they’ve ever read Plato.

Creative nonfiction sells, but it also feeds our need for wisdom in a culture that increasingly rejects the ponderous methods of the past. Perhaps traditional philosophy is a relic, queer but interesting like old churches, dead languages, or monastics wearing habits on the street. But its focus remains. As long as people live, suffer, and die, we will have question, and will cling to the words that seem to answer them.

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