By Andrew Stahl
Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, widely considered the beginning of modern philosophy, begins with self-isolation. Descartes withdraws from the ordinary world for six days in order to be free from distractions, so that he can “demolish everything completely and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything at all…” The Meditations thus suggest that this freedom from distraction and complete isolation are the necessary starting points of philosophizing – a suggestion which drew feminist critiques ever since his correspondence with Elisabeth for unjustly excluding women from philosophy. What goes unsaid in Descartes’ account, it is objected, is who did his cooking and cleaning, who would have watched the children (had he had any). His isolation is mere fantasy. Nonetheless, this formulation has stuck; even Nietzsche, the antichrist to the old philosophy, affirms what is “indispensable precisely to them: freedom from compulsion, disturbance, noise, from business, duties, cares.”
But if the origin of philosophy is this isolation from the world, does that mean it lies in boredom? It is a tempting idea; we all now know the boredom isolation can bring. Indeed, the feminist critique highlights Descartes’ privilege to be bored in the way philosophy requires. But we shouldn’t be too quick here: the freedom to be bored and the actual state of boredom are different. Philosophy certainly seems to require the former, but the latter is inimical to philosophizing. Philosophy – “meditation” to Descartes – requires sustained attention and focus, whereas boredom is precisely a lack of attention to what one is currently doing; it is a state of scattered attention. Descartes’ meditations are undertaken in order to reorientate one’s attention to the true world, built on the objective foundations of the cogito and God, and away from the deceptive senses. Boredom, at least prima facie, has no such aim.
Does this mean that philosophy is restricted to the privileged, as Elisabeth asked Descartes? In a sense the answer is surely yes. The ranks of professional philosophy are, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly white, male, straight and raised upper-class. Philosophy is esoteric, requires time and energy many working full-time jobs lack, and employment requires extensive graduate education for low wages and scarce tenure prospects. The causes of this are partly structural problems – ever worsening as university tuitions increase and humanities budgets are slashed while wealth inequality grows – which can’t be addressed solely within philosophy. If what we have said above is true, however, the problem runs deeper: the very activity of philosophy seems to be indicted.
So far, we have decided that philosophy necessitates the freedom to be bored, though perhaps not the actual state of boredom, and that this restricts who can do philosophy. The conclusion of this line of reasoning, however, is not to condemn philosophy. On the contrary, it is to denounce the state of affairs which only allows certain people access to this privilege; it is to work towards a world where more people can decide to pursue this path; and it is to recognize that even if philosophy has traditionally started in isolation from the world, it has not ended there. The end point of Descartes’ inquiry – of his isolation – was his reentry into the world, now with a firm foundation for his knowledge of it. It was his freedom to be bored which allowed this triumphant return.