The one question I ask more than any other is: Why?
I’ve done this to my students so much they get sick of me. “Why do you think that? Why do you think the author thinks that? Why does that evidence show what you think it does? Why do you think this is important?” I can keep going for an entire class period, really. And one of my favorite responses is when they try to turn it around on me, and start asking me “Why” over and over again: partly because I can usually answer the question for as long as they want to keep asking it (Well, almost: when they’re doing it to be perverse and mess with me, they ask “Why” without listening to the answers, and they’ll just keep asking it, and snickering, for as long as I let them, so I’ll cut it off after four or five repetitions. But if they’re actually listening, I’ll keep talking. Actually, that’s true all the time, and not just in my classroom.), which pleases the obnoxious competitive side of me, and partly because when they ask me “Why,” and I tell them my reasons — I often have the answer already in hand, especially if they’re questioning something like “Why are we reading this”; and when I don’t have the answer in hand, I can usually think quick enough, and speak confusingly enough (I just came across the word “obscurantist” to describe someone who intentionally obfuscates the meaning of things, and I aspire to it), to answer the question several times in a row — it helps me to figure out my reasons. I think best when I am putting thoughts into words; if I just try to think, without speaking or writing what I am thinking, I am too easily distracted by too many thoughts: what I’m doing right then, or seeing or hearing or feeling; what I have to do, what I should be doing instead of whatever I’m doing, and so on.
I ask this question so much, and appreciate the answers no matter where or who they come from, because I like thinking about why. I think reasons are mysterious, and mystifying. I think we have them for almost everything we do, but we hardly ever know what our own reasons are. Think about that: it’s not that our actions are meaningless or purposeless; it’s that we have some fundamental disconnect between the determination of those meanings and purposes, and the actions themselves. Why is there this disconnect? Maybe because the same is true of the world around us: there are reasons and purposes for everything. There are reasons why trees exist, why the sky is blue, why scratching your back is satisfying; and purposes for electric fans and floors and nose hair. Sometimes one, either a reason or a purpose, exists without the other; sometimes they are one and the same: the reason something exists is to achieve a purpose. But — and this is the important point — we don’t usually know what those reasons and purposes are. I mean, I sort of know why trees exist, but what about the tree outside my window? Was that one planted when my neighborhood was built? Or was it here before, and they chose not to tear it down when they built these houses? If it happened naturally, why did that tree thrive when other seedlings perished? If it was planned by the developer, why was that species of tree chosen? If it was planted as a seedling, why was that particular seedling picked out of all the others?
These reasons exist; but we don’t, and usually can’t (and maybe shouldn’t) know them. It’s maybe different with purposes, because we can deduce them pretty specifically based on evidence and logic: the tree across the way, if it was planted by a person with a purpose, is placed to cast shade on a house, and it is an evergreen so it doesn’t drop leaves that need to be raked; I don’t know much about trees, but if we say it’s a pine, or a spruce, then maybe that would tell us if it was picked because it was cheap, or because it would grow fast, or because it would thrive in the Tucson heat. And so on. We mostly know what people want, and what they need, so we can sort of reverse engineer a lot of their choices, figure out the purpose of things that said humans have built or manipulated.
I’ve maybe made a distinction (and maybe lost it already) that doesn’t work well, in talking about reasons and purposes as if they are different things. I’m thinking of a reason as an explanation of how something came to be, the cause and effect that describes its origins; a purpose is here the justifications for a thing that exists, the goals behind the choices that led to its creation. A purpose, of course, requires a will and consciousness to make choices and have goals, and then the ability to cause something to be created. The reason for something can be just that purpose, especially if we think about things that exist as including simple actions: I made coffee this morning because I wanted to drink it. Then we can get into the reasons why coffee exists and why it came to be the thing I wanted to drink. And then, maybe I have larger purposes for wanting to drink coffee, things like wanting energy and focus, wanting to get things done that may require caffeine; if it’s something simple like “I like coffee and how it makes me feel” then I would argue there’s not a purpose for that coffee, but there is a reason.
I would also like to point out that my reasons for drinking coffee, my purposes if I have those, are probably not very interesting. Honestly, it’s a trio of reasons, only one of them purposeful: one, I don’t sleep well and am usually tired in the mornings, but I have to get up early because I have to walk my dogs before it gets hot, so I need caffeine to counteract my tiredness (Also I’m addicted to it, so I need coffee to keep myself from going through withdrawal, and to satisfy my psychological craving); two, I like the taste of coffee and am pleased by my reputation as a coffee drinker; three, I want to use my morning time to accomplish things, and coffee helps me do that. None of those are terribly interesting — though also, even those mundane things, when we get into the honest reasons and purposes, can lead to interesting conversations: why do I like my reputation as a coffee drinker? What does that mean to me? Why don’t I sleep well, and why do I use caffeine to deal with that, instead of solving the issues that ruin my rest?
See what can come of asking Why?
With human beings, I would argue that there are reasons why we exist, both as a species and as individuals, but not necessarily purpose. (I will note that people who believe in a God who created us think that there is a purpose for our existence — though again, we may not know that purpose. I’m not going to argue either way on that one. Not now, at least.) What’s fascinating and unique about us as a species, because we are the only animal that can reason, is that we can find or create our own purpose, and thus redefine ourselves and our very existence. That’s amazing: that we can change who and what we are, by changing our Why. By turning reasons into purposes. And then past that, taking up something that was created for one purpose, or even no purpose, and finding a new purpose for it, one that serves our own goals regardless of whether or not that thing still serves its original purpose. What’s even more amazing is that we can take bad and terrible and evil things, and turn them into good things, or at least the causes of good things, by finding a positive purpose even in our suffering. As a minor example, I read constantly and ravenously when I was a child, because I was shy and awkward and therefore lonely and bored; books saved me from all of that. But now that I am a writer and an English teacher, that childhood spent reading has been turned to a valuable purpose. Two, really, because I have different purposes in those two pursuits, my vocation and my avocation. Though sometimes they serve the same purpose: because of course our purposes change, especially with those actions which we do continuously, repeatedly, and also always affirmatively: every day I go to work, I choose to continue teaching, and I have to choose, over and over again, how I will teach. As with my writing.
I have found that knowing why I teach, why I write, makes those choices easier. And that’s why I want to ask that question, and why I want to discuss it with my students and with my readers: so that they — you — can make choices as well, and achieve your purposes while helping me achieve mine. I forget my reasons sometimes, and lose them sometimes, and that makes it harder to keep choosing to do the same things. I wanted to be a successful novelist by the time I was 25; didn’t even come close. I realized that was actually a pretty dumb purpose for writing, because of the essentially randomly chosen age deadline, so moving past that reason wasn’t too hard. But twenty years later, I’m still not a famous novelist; (Notice how I changed that term, from “successful” to “famous?” I didn’t, not when I wrote these sentences; but I decided to add something, and looked back to see where the best place was to add it, and I realized what I did. This is also, I think, how we get confused about our purposes –or maybe it represents that confusion, that I haven’t defined well what “success” means, that I didn’t do that when I was 25. And maybe that’s why it didn’t happen, or at least why it didn’t hurt me much when it didn’t happen.) and I’ve also realized, in learning more about what life is like for people who are successful and famous novelists, that maybe I don’t want to be that.
That’s fine. But then, why do I write? Why should I write?
On some level I have a reason now: I am a word guy, as I said; I think best when I put thoughts into words and sentences. And there are plenty of explanations for why I am this way, some interesting, some not. But I think we are not defined by our reasons. We are defined by our purposes. (Unless we don’t have a purpose, in which case we are defined by our reasons.)
So what’s my purpose? Why do I do what I do?
This piece actually started as some kind of explanation for a thing I’ve started doing: I’ve started reading philosophy. Well, I guess I didn’t start; I’ve been reading philosophy for a very long time. Starting, I guess, with Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which I read in high school; I took a couple of philosophy classes in college, and I’ve been reading Bertrand Russell for quite a while, mostly because Ray Bradbury mentioned him in Fahrenheit 451, which I’ve read so many times that I got curious about who this Russell guy was — and then when my wife and I lived in Oregon, we made regular trips to Portland to go to Powell’s City of Books, I used to go wander through the FIVE FLOORS THAT COVER A FULL CITY BLOCK in search of things to buy and read, and Russell’s books of essays were short, and cheap. And interesting.
But I haven’t ever read philosophy purposefully: it’s interesting, and sometimes useful, but mostly I have had reasons but no definite goal with it. A couple of years ago, I started reading philosophy for a purpose, but I didn’t like the purpose, so I didn’t keep it up; the purpose was reinvigorated once or twice more, but never sustained the pursuit, so I kept dropping it.
I guess I’m looking for a sustainable purpose now. I’ve found another tool to help me with reading philosophy, because unlike Bertrand Russell, who was an amazing wordsmith, most philosophers are actually crappy writers. Well, I don’t know if it’s “most,” but it definitely seems a trend. I got a general philosophy book from my local Tucson used book store (Bookman’s, and they’re great — but they’re no Powell’s. I miss Powell’s.) and the writing is awful. But I found a podcast that explains the basics of philosophy, and it is both extremely easy to follow and understand, and also interesting–and, I’ve found, thought-provoking. So that makes me want to keep reading philosophy, and even read more; every episode I listen to makes me want to read more philosophy, because the show (It’s Philosophize This, with Stephen West) covers a new philosopher every episode, and so I keep adding to the list of books I want to read.
It’s a big list now. And, I’m afraid, it will be a hard list to get through. Hard to get through even one of those books, probably.
So is it worth doing? It’s a lot of time and energy I’m looking to dedicate to this. At this point, my reason for doing this is mostly — curiosity. And that’s probably not enough of a reason.
I tried to explain my reasons to my wife the other day, and she pointed out that the reason I was giving, which I mostly made up on the spot, really just trying to figure out why I was doing it by putting it into words — it was a bad reason. I came to my blog here intending to work out a better reason why I want to do this difficult thing, why I want to spend my time on it; instead I have now been talking about why I want to ask why, for better than 2000 words.
(I hated those commercials, by the way. Even when they were first on, before I had read any philosophy or ever really thought about Why in any serious way. Why ask why? You just fucking asked it in the question, goddammit. Stupid Bud Dry. What the hell kind of product is that, anyway. Stupid name. Stupid beer.)
But you know what? I think that is the answer. I think that’s the reason, and the purpose, for reading philosophy. Because I love to ask why. Because I want to know why. And maybe the best way to figure out why, all my whys is — philosophy.
I’ll let you know what I figure out.