“That makes no sense!”
“What’s the sense of it?”
Sense and Sensibility
The Five Senses (sometimes including a Sixth, hinting at intuition)
The word “Sense” is everywhere in our conversations (and disputes). But because it means so many things in so many ways, it poses something of a challenge. What’s the common thread? I suggest it’s the making part. We make things by assembling ingredients; using a technique to bring them together to achieve an edible, new harmony that adds up to a nourishing result.
One of the clues that helped me reach that conclusion was my memory of an experience that delivered a reassuring moment in the early career of a beginning teacher of undergraduate philosophy. Recalling those days in the college classroom, I still savor the flicker of recognition in students’ eyes when I quoted the following definition of philosophy: “Philosophy is a system of ideas that helps make sense of experience.” I still consider it the best definition I know. In fact, that definition was the inspiration for a book I am writing with the working title Making Sense of Experience.
The “llght bulb” that went off when I saw that positive response, reminded me that, too often, works of philosophy have been like a gated community for academics who speak to one another, (possibly a bit too motivated by the “publish or perish” dictum that ends by having them try to impress one another.)
At their best, philosophers who have influenced millions have been able to cope with experiences that cried out to be understood. So, where do people go to find a “common sense” appreciation of philosophy whose “recipe” provides ingredients that shift the flavor balance from being impressive to being understood? It is time to put philosophy back where it belongs – in the world of every day experience. From a dish reserved for banquets to a staple of daily nourishment and even camaraderie, experience, and how you deal with it, is a key ingredient. Experiences that are personal have to be broadened to experiences that are human, and not just the property of one individual.
We all live in a digital era where life is lived at the speed of a computer. No one is short on experience. It floods in, threatens to inundate. How can we make sure that the flow of experience does not remain just raw material, but is turned into a recipe for humanization? The issue is whether this tsunami of experience will sensitize and enrich or merely swamp us.
The crucial thing, it seems, is to harness the power of experience. Discern some thread of unity. Give it a name. Put it together with some shared remembrance of hearing it captured in a common-sense expression. Then, call up a memory of how one of the greats you met in History of Philosophy saw it. That three-part invention could become the basis for a successful recipe for making sense of it all.
Take, for example the experience of fear; relate it to the famous FDR advice, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself;” and then look at both the experience and the axiom in the light of, for example, Kierkegaard’s exploration of Fear and Trembling. In that work, he portrays authentic existence as the ability to make a leap of faith, even in the face of justified concern about the outcome of such a “leap.”
With those three links established, you may be encouraged to develop your own recipes for dealing with issues such as the following. Why and with whom you fall in love. (Hint: see Hammerstein lyrics for “People Will Say We’re in Love.”) And consider stirring in some reflections from the contemporary philosopher/wise man Alain de Boton’s books on love.
How do you discern, from among all the paths you might follow, what is the right or righteous one? (Hint you may enjoy an Aristotelian recipe that relates the individual’s happiness to that of the greater community. Or you may just want to read a current newspaper.)
How make can we make sense of our pesky HR/workplace issues/conflicts? How do we give our children smart tools for dealing with bullying? (Hint: possibly a little over-simplified but consider citing the adage “Be careful that you don’t turn into XXXXX (you supply the nemesis.) And don’t forget to stir more than a spoonful of Hegel’s “Master/Slave Dialectic” into the recipe.
Should you prefer to start from the end, as in how you want the recipe to “taste,” you could consider recognizing that it is equally possible to start with the philosophical insight and work back to an experience that seemed to lack meaning. That’s a recipe from the “Oh, that’s what it was about!” section of the Sense Recipe Book.
To turn an undifferentiated flow of sensations and impressions from fragmented to focused, from exhausting to enabling, from the half-baked assortment Socrates defined as a life not worth living, there must be some principle of analysis, some principle of unification, some way to relate an entirely singular experience to one that applies as relating to human beings as a community not just to Jane as Jane. That also puts you at less risk of being classified a narcissist. That can be where philosophy enters the picture.
And that is why I invited you to today’s conversation.