Let's say you like learning about interesting or unusual things, and your favorite use of the printed word (or typed word) is to “gain information” (uh-oh). You're lost if you think more information will benefit you in some marvelous, interesting, and unusual way. Information is cheaper than water, easier to find, and yet rarely as clean. Read philosophy, and you'll really have something that others don't. It will help you to think better: not only will you learn more facts the further you go – including history, science, art, art history, computer science, linguistics, neuroscience, psychology – you will learn the structures of thought and “work out” your mind; you'll be able to re-/claim your mind and learn that an “intellectual conscience” is indispensable when dealing with information. You may have lost your mind and not know it, and I mean this in no clinical sense but in the sense that you may have already stopped thinking much of the time, though you may think you think.
Philosophy and poetry, poetry and love, love and awe, escape all explanation in terms of information; they are ways of being. If you can change your way of being, become philosophical, your information will be solidly grounded – yet is likely to seem more precarious than before! Better to be aware of this dangerous position than not to know it. I have been a fool and am still an amateur; yet I've learned this. If I can, you can too. Going from what I criticize – and, to some extent, what I exemplify here merely by writing on the Web – toward the frozen heights: this is information gathering, this is learning, creative destruction, power, progress.
When you read for information, you are almost certainly engaging in an incredible act of hubris and confirmation bias (see the Dunning-Kruger effect and an article by David Dunning). You are probably relying on authorities you can't properly evaluate the credibility of, to reinforce your belief – in what you already believe. That's not optimal! What's really smart is what Nietzsche admonished us to do: “A very popular error: having the courage of one's convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions,” and, “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”
When you want to “assault” your convictions – let's say you've already decided you want to do this – you go like the sappers of old, under the infrastructure. You dig tunnels under the castle walls, supporting the existing edifice with wooden supports; you set up your ideological infrastructure for failure by giving it only tentative support – then burn the supports and allow it to collapse.
At least, that's what you do if you really want difficulty. Some smart guy, named Neurath, supposedly (information...), said philosophy is like rebuilding a ship at sea. By this the smart guy meant something like: “Philosophy is necessary for flotation.” The Ancient Greeks actually, literally, used philosophical presuppositions to build their ships, which led to all kinds of problems, curable only by Socratic irony; but philosophies are always being rethought, ships being maintained. To sail the high seas in an ancient wooden boat, you've got to replace the devil, plug leaks, rip up rotten planks, refit masts, do sailing jigs this author has never heard of. Just assume there's tons of stuff that needs fixing. So you don't sink, you've got to be careful.
“Merely” pick up a book by a famous, “controversial” philosopher, someone you think you know something about from hearing jokes and absorbing memes. Any well-known thinker, about whom you think you know things from sources like those, is ripe for the picking: because, if you've never read a philosopher but have only heard slander or praise of him or her – or, nearly as bad, have only read bits of them, or read about them in school or in popular books – you probably “know” a lot of things that aren't true; you don't know anything about them – if you're lucky. And you want to know. You're curious. You're smart. You want information. Yet it'll be “what you know that just ain't so” that's holding you back.
Read that Nazi bastard Heidegger's essay, “The Question Concerning Technology.” Read it and weep. As standing-reserve-coming-to-know-itself-in-the-world, it may seem as if you live in a dehumanizing prison of production, where you're only “valued” as a “resource,” and few people (if any) care whether you live or die beyond the resulting “loss of productivity.” That's probably true. This incursion of philosophy into your mind should send you reeling. For example, the “cost” and “loss of productivity” due to the severe mental illness schizophrenia was estimated to be over $155,000,000,000 per year in the US alone for 2013. Even if this is accurate, the toll exceeds that by mountains of money bags and human suffering. What is the interest, compounded, on the portion of the forgone $155,000,000,000 that might have been saved and invested? With a figure like this, it is within the error bars. What is the toll, in terms of human flourishing, due to the considerably increased prevalence of suicide among people suffering from the illness, 5% of whom die by their own hands? A “human resource” providing “man hours” does not “die” because it does not live; there is no such thing. Human beings exist, the very things eliminated, in Heidegger's view, by the dominant, technological stance. This is just a taste of how philosophy can change your life and your view of the world.
- Maybe for you “staying afloat” means being able to convince yourself that you're out-arguing strangers on the Internet – and anyone on the Internet whom you don't know “IRL” (in real life) is a frickin' stranger. If so, philosophy can help you; reading philosophy may just convince you that what you're really doing there is wasting your precious life. Every argument changes you, no matter how well you seem to be changing other people's minds. Reading philosophy is likely to repair some of the damage of arguing on the Internet; you'll be standing on a mountain top, when what you'd been doing was “rolling in the deep,” in the sewer.
- By reading ten of Nietzsche's books (The Gay Science three times), I got to know him about as well as, or better than, you've known anyone you've ever argued with on the Web without having met IRL [citation needed.] He could write. And he was the bomb – “I am dynamite,” he wrote. By reading Nietzsche, and learning about the pronunciation of his name, you'll come to find that you can't swing a hammer without knocking into someone who knows all about him and is completely wrong. This should aid in your argumentation; you'll be less likely to argue with strangers – in such an argument, everyone involved becomes a fool because we tend to stand up on our hind legs, or double down, and think we know something when we don't.
- If you're more of a passive Web-wanderer, intent on sucking up to information – oh, I mean “sucking up information” – then philosophy is for you. Of course, you may be the exception, the person who is a natural philosopher, like the young woman who goggled and held my book up to her head, implying she already knew everything in it; or who is a natural philosopher (read “scientist”) for whom philosophy is indicative of Very Bad Things such as inefficiency, imprecision, woo-woo, and worse. You may be neither of these. Philosophy gets a bad name, it seems, in the exact proportion that poetry gets a good name, though the people doing the evaluating are typically neither educated in, readers of, or practitioners of either poetry or philosophy. Every businessman is the “slave to some defunct economist,” and every factoid is embedded in some (defunct?) philosopher's thoughts. Better to realize it than not.
- Next, find a copy of Kockelman's Heidegger on Art and Art Works, and read about phenomenology and the hermeneutic circle in impenetrable prose complete with “Heideggerese” and alliteration, thrown in as if only to make it more dizzying. The Kindle edition of the book sells for about $200. This should help you realize you don't know diddly-beans, and, spoiler alert, that is probably the entire point of reading philosophy.
- After returning Kockelmans to the library, you can pick up Don Ihde's Heidegger's Technologies: Postphenomenological Perspectives. It's an analysis of Heidegger's essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” in the context of his earlier work, Being and Time, in rather ordinary language. You won't discover what is meant by “postphenomenological” in this book, so you'll have to figure out how to get that information (pro tip: it's in his Peking University lectures.) You'll realize, if you don't know already, reading secondary sources, even those by legit folk such as Kockelmans and Ihde – without having read the primary source – is a good way to miss out on lots of the fun; you get “information” without getting philosophy.
- Another thing you may pick up along the way, while reading translations of those 19th and 20th century Germans, is you may just learn how to read. Yes, you probably can't read well yet. Point your face at some Nietzsche, for example, Human, All Too Human. If you can understand it right off, you're pretty good at reading; but it may be you can't understand it even then, and are just fooling yourself. There are reasons for book after book being written on Nietzsche, and paper after paper, long after his death. Read tons of his stuff. Soon you'll get used to his writing style, which predates list-style Web postings by a few years.
- You will, if you persevere – and you take the boat-rebuilding course in fixing your view of the world, instead of taking the sapper's approach – realize that information is theory- and value-laden, and that, as a philosophically naive mental structuring of it is disastrous, the world is run, largely, by and for ignorant fools! Congratulations for finding this out. I'll give you a pat on the back here, in case you're too stunned to give yourself one. Or maybe you think politicians are among the more honest of human beings.... The overconfidence of those around, and of yourself, will – if it didn't already – astound you, once you understand something of your own. Arrogant ignorance abounds; the philosopher abides. Or doesn't. Philosophers take action, too. For example, Heidegger was politically conscious, which is supposed to be a Very Good Thing.
- If you want to take the sapper's approach, I would recommend some Nietzsche (anything except Zarathustra to start with!), then Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation, a piece of technoscientific-dystopian poetry you may know from its cameo in the 1999 film The Matrix. You may wonder whether Baudrillard was Nietzsche's protege. I did. His stuff is blistering, insane. Then, or first, read that little book by “The Invisible Committee,” The Coming Insurrection, while realizing that it is “shock-the-dullard-cows” writing, completely extravagant in its way, and not something to be used as a literal basis for action. They take a few gripes and want to end the world. Your vision may become blurry, the world uncanny – and that's what you wanted. For the sapper, philosophy books are limit experiences. The approaches of the sapper and the boat-fixer can be hybridized to taste.
- The primary benefit of philosophy is that it takes you out of the information blast- furnace, prevents you, while you're reading, from arguing on the Internet (no, you're probably not “having a discussion” – as if even a sizable minority of Netizens know how to do that; and they're whom you'd be talking to), and just might be the gateway practice to reading poetry, the power of which is at least as great as that of philosophy; the two may be, at times, nearly identical.
- “If you're not outraged” – you just might be a thoughtful person who realizes that memes and bumper stickers are lossy compressions of bad ideas. If you're not “outraged,” that is, if you aren't into reading “the news” to reaffirm your reasons for being upset, you might just be a philosopher. If you're outraged, it's probably because you're a human being living in a world run by human beings; “the world” is a mess, always has been, and isn't going to get much better anytime soon; philosophy is the way to “think globally, act locally.” It is the ultra-local action dais, where everything that happens for you, happens, and the place where everything can be changed. It is the control panel for the world.
Get off the Web. Read books. Stop arguing on fora and social media. Read philosophy: change your entire world. Now go and look at Heidegger's Country Path Conversations. “Information” helps you blow your competition away in terms of avarice and vanity, is good for cocktail parties and barroom belligerence; philosophy like Country Path Conversations blows your goddam mind.