Gavin Schmitt: Questions and Answers 1
Since his answers may have changed since early 2005, I'll be adding any additional comments he may have to the answers below.
1) I'm about to read your writings - why should I?
In all honesty, you probably shouldn't. But as long as you arrived on this page anyway, I would suspect something has piqued your interest. Feed your desires. Indulge! Some of the ideas you find here will not be found anywhere else on the Internet or maybe even the world. Besides, you're probably reading this at work, so there's a streak of something "subversive" inside you... evoke this streak, conjure it up from whatever depths it may be buried.
2) Why are your writings online?
The functional reason is because James, the owner of Strivinglife and my colleague, approached me with the idea of using his server for my writings.
However, if you mean what purpose do they serve, that answer is simple. The Internet is currently the most accessible medium available to essentially everyone - the closest thing to true democracy you'll find. Rich, poor, young and old can all equally access these pages. As someone who wishes to reach as wide an audience as possible, this medium is the penultimate way of doing precisely that.
If you wish to know what purpose they serve for the reader, that is more subjective and I leave each reader to take from this what they choose. No more, no less.
3) It's my first time here - what should I read, and why?
Ask yourself what sort of person you are. Are you philosophical? Political? We have sections that might provide some new ideas for discussion at an area coffee shop. Are you the sort who wants to know an author personally? I would then recommend reading the surveys near the top of the main page under "Personal" or dropping me a line (all e-mails guaranteed answered). Or if you use the Internet as purely a source of humor or distraction, you should consider "Miscellaneous" or "Letters to Corporations" [James: 'Letters to ...' on the site.] where your time will be wasted most efficiently.
4) Let's say I want to write like yourself - what should I do? What made you be the kind of writer you are?
Here's what you do... get yourself a tall glass. Fill it with two shots cynicism, one shot left-wing ideology, and another shot of morbid curiosity to top it off. Stir (do not shake!). One of these each day, and you'll likely end up in the sad state of affairs I have.
If you're looking for influences, mine were Voltaire, Nietzsche, Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, Howard Zinn, a plethora of classic French and Russian novelists, and the obituary page of a small-town newspaper.
5) In your opinion, who is the most influential philosopher; a) in your life/personal philosophy b) that someone interested in reading philosophy should read c) on philosophy (who had/has the greatest impact)
The most influential philosopher in my life is undoubtedly Friedrich Nietzsche. Regardless of whether or not I agree with his ideas, these same ideas have pervaded every facet of my being. My first venture into philosophy was in sophomore year with Nietzsche's "The Anti-Christ". His philosophy has changed the music I grew up with (Nine Inch Nails, for example). The movies I watched were reliant on him. Many of his maxims ("that which does not kill me makes me stronger") are in common parlance. And the more dominant ideas of the past 100 years (post-modernism, existentialism, and the like) all owe their existence to him. Even psychology, if we give Freud enough credit, is largely borrowed from Nietzsche.
Someone starting in philosophy could very well start with Nietzsche. His writing style makes him a quick and enjoyable read, unlike what you will discover from other authors (which might be a turn off to the new student). Also, as much as I dislike Plato, he would also be a fine place to start because he is easy to understand and, chronologically, makes for a good starting point.
As far as who influenced philosophy is general, these two are at an impasse. Nietzsche is the current undercurrent, I feel. But Plato is the rock the entire system is founded on. Anyone else must take a distant third.
6) Who is the least influential philosopher, based upon your own philosophy (that you can remember - obviously, the least influential philosophers will be ones you have never studied)?
The philosopher who is least influential on myself would be any philosopher who deals in areas I don't particularly care for. I enjoy linguistics and cognitive science, and ethics is interesting to some degree. Ontology, the study of being, is something I care less for. As a whole, anyone who is in phenomenology is of no use to me. Husserl was some influence on me (through no fault of my own), but any one who follows him has no influence on me whatsoever. For example, I do do subscribe to the views of Andrew Spear.
7) What philosophers, up to three, do you believe philosophy students will like the least (but that they will have to read)? Put another way, who do you think the least enjoyable, influential, philosopher is/are?
The philosophers students will like the least would clearly be the ones who are the most difficult to read. Certain philosophers wrote in a style that was as clear as mud. Edmund Husserl was one. Wilhelm von Humboldt was another. But neither of these men are necessary reading. Two challenging but essential philosophers are Hegel and Kant. A third might be Descartes. The concepts they present are not hard, but the style they write in is complicated. No philosophy student will be able to avoid these three men in some form or another.
8) One thing you hate about philosophy is:
The thing I dislike most about philosophy is the way society has sidelined the discipline. Philosophy used to be a core aspect of a healthy education, and now it is no more respected by the general populace. Many people never touch upon it (I often have to correct people who think I studied "psychology"). Those who do, often do so because it is a freshman college requirement. I think a wider study - and a push for philosophy in high schools - would greatly enhance the ability for people to think critically about all things in life.
9) Another thing you hate about philosophy is:
I dislike that the more detailed a subject is studied, the more abstract it becomes, and eventually becomes more wordplay than actual learning. Philosophical observations are clear, reasons to hold certain viewpoints are clear. But when you get to the point where you are arguing over the properties of a universal that may or may not exist, I feel something is wrong. (Husserl is notorious for this, in my opinion. His students would debate how the "ego" grasps things... when the ego could not be identified, and any discussion was more or less arbitrary depending on your definitions of "grasp" and "margin" and "theme" - all concepts which do not exist until Husserl names them.)
10) Do you think all philosophers like some shared thing (idea, etcetera)?
I would like to believe all philosophers like the truth and strive for this truth. However, I cannot say positively this is true.
11) Do you think everyone has the ability to do philosophy, or not? For either choice, why?
In theory, anyone should be able to. However, in a practical sense, I think the majority of people cannot practice philosophy or at least not do so well. Philosophy is the same as any other skill - some of it you must be born with and some of it you hone. I would compare this to basketball. Some people are already at a disadvantage if born without height, and others even with practice cannot perfect the three-point shot. Philosophy is the same way. Some of us were designed for more abstract thought, and some were not. And even the ones who are more intelligent than others, philosophy might bot be for them and practice might not help. A man can memorize the dictionary, but this does not guarantee him the ability to string those words together into a lyrical piece of prose.
12) You write on a pretty diverse set of topics. In addition to your writings on The Framing Business, and your posts on Gavin War Journal, you also write a number of movie reviews and write to the Appleton Post-Crescent (and seem to have been recognized for that). On your Facebook profile it says that you "handle materials." If someone with a camera were to ask you what you do, how would you respond?
Sadly, I wish I wrote on an even more diverse set of topics, as I tend to run over the same ground again and again every so often. But I suppose we all have to have our niches. I have referred to myself as a "freelance writer" and prefer the title "pop philosopher". I could be called a movie reviewer or an essayist or a polemicist or any other number of things, but pop philosopher always seemed to me a fairly open-ended description. Why limit myself? What I do is this: I input the world, process it through my filters and produce some sort of reaction. But pop philosopher sounds more fluid and less mechanical. (Asked and answered October 31, 2007.)
13) Noam Chomsky?
Such a vague question, James. Let me interpret that as something like "what is the connection between you and NC?" which can be broken down to "why do you like NC" and "why does he like you". So, I'll answer in two parts to that effect.
As you know, if you recall, I've made a point of contacting people directly for years (Jerry Fodor, for example). I think it's best to hear directly if you can, especially when you work in a field where 99% of the authority figures are dead. NC is a chief theorist in linguistics and a noted political activist. To some degree, a respectable philosopher. He's huge. Since he and I share similar views, it only makes sense to contact him. Just as I contact Robert Reich if I have economics queries. And he's getting old, so there's that reality he may not be around much longer. I missed out on contacting Douglas Adams (my favorite author), and then my new favorite author (Vonnegut) died, although I was able to send a letter out without response. And also, there's some sense that if I am going to make an impact, I need to rise to the occasion. It's one thing to simply study, write and be active in philosophy and politics -- it's a whole other thing to take on someone directly. As much as I admire NC (as is evidenced by doing a quick search on the website), I am by no means obsequious about it -- he has some beliefs (particularly what I call his "train derailment ethics") that I could not disagree with more. I also enjoy his books not only for the ideas, but directing me to new sources on old ideas. (Using NC as a reference is controversial, using his sources is less so -- because many people feel he uses them improperly, and I think in some respects this is true.)
Now, why does he actually respond, you ask? I've thought about that. He has responded, as I recall, every time. Which is probably something like 45 times now. There was one instance he did not, but apologized afterwards and said it was an accident. I guess I don't think it's because he "likes" me. He doesn't really know me. To my knowledge he has never read anything I've written beyond our correspondence. But this leaves me wondering: why is he responding? If he responds to everyone, he simply wouldn't have time to do much of anything (yet clearly does). And one would think he'd get a lot of mail, being well-known and having a publicly-available address. So it's weird -- either nobody is contacting him, or he uses all his free time to respond to mail, or somehow my correspondence carries weight. And I can't answer that, because it confuses me as much as anyone. I guess my thought is that not many people write, thinking like I was that everyone would write and thus their mail wouldn't get noticed.
But anyway, in short -- the NC connection is simply that he is a monumental figure, and if I have access to him, why not? If Bertrand Russell was accessible, or Fred (Nietzsche), I'd engage them. And after Chomsky has moved on, I'm sure I'll try to work with others in the philosophical or political arena. And then the website won't be so heavily lopsided... (Asked and answered November 2007.)
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