Hobby Horse Theorizing


 David Hume, the father of modern skepticism, wrote that upon leaving the privacy of his study that "he thinks the way ordinary people think”  thereby admitting (with a refreshing honesty) that his armchair philosophizing had no practical value.

 Yet though honest about it, it is still amazing to hear the philosopher say that his speculations bear no relation to his life! 

 Now, though Hume didn’t seem concerned to forge a relationship between his thinking and his life, others have clearly understood that there is an intimate relationship between what we think and how we behave.  

 The sane and sensible have always understood the age-told truth that, as a man thinks, so he is.

 And thus accordingly, St. Paul wrote: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phillipians 4:8)

 St Paul's idea was that if we fill our minds up with what is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy that we will begin to embody these virtues.

 Thus affirming the point that it matters what we focus on. The direction of our attention is crucial for, as I repeat the point, we become what we contemplate - as a man thinks so he is.

 Now, Professor Thomas Reid, Hume’s contemporary and most able opponent, was right therefore to "chide Hume for "embracing a philosophy that is like a hobbyhorse.” (Daniel N. Robinson, in his lecture on Thomas Reid, The Great Ideas of Philosophy, The Great Courses.)

 Reid chided Hume for coming up with an unserious philosophy, a playtime philosophy, that had nothing to do with the life we are called upon to live.

 Hume was then, in Thomas Reid’s estimate, nothing but a hobby horse theorizer

 An example of Hume's empty theorizing is epitomized in his reflections upon the question of personal identity.

 As Hume wrote: "When I observe myself, I see nothing but a bundle of perceptions.” (A Treatise of Human Nature)

 Really, Mr Hume? That’s it? You glanced within, and saw nothing?

 There was nobody there? 

 And so concluded that there is no personal identity?

 There is no you there?

 There is only a blank. A nothing. An emptiness?

 What level of looking is that, Mr. Hume? 

 Deep and penetrating?


 But I guess, if you are a hobby horse theorizer, that this is the sort of foolishness you come up with - a philosophy about nothing.  

 And end up being favoured and referenced by other similarly empty theorizers, such as Karl Marx.

 Really, Hume’s best shot at introspection resulted in the conclusion that no self is there.

 That is what Hume left us with.

 Now of course, the common sense retort to David Hume’s conclusion that there is no self within is to ask the simple question: 'And who, Mr. Hume, is doing the observing?'

  “For, as has been said, 'Where there is treason, there must be a traitor.'

    And, 'for there to be a bundle of perceptions, there must be a perceiver.’ (D.N. Robinson) 

 Someone is doing the observing!

 That someone is you, Mr. Hume!

 Hume’s sad legacy is the message that inside of us there is only an emptiness.

 There is no personal identity. There is no enduring self. (As the Buddhists had already said many centuries before)

 That’s quite a conclusion and such a contrast, say, for example, to the experience of John Wesley who, upon hearing Luther's preface to the New Testament book of Romans, felt his heart strangely warmed in response.

 Wesley's life was never the same after his life transforming experience of a heart strangely warmed.

 Indeed, Wesley build the rest of his life upon his sense of a self warmed by the experience of union with God.

 Now in a marked contrast to Mr. Hume’s hobby horse theorizing and vacuous conclusions, Professor Thomas Reid insisted upon the necessity of lining up your life with your philosophy.

 Otherwise, what’s the point of your contemplations and ideas?

 Reid’s challenge therefore to all hobby horse theorizers was "to live according to the terms of your own philosophy.” 

 And therefore it should be asked: 'Does your philosophy, whatever it is, build a stronger sense of self? 

 Does it renew and strengthen a sense of self?

 If your philosophy doesn’t ground, center and inspire you, what’s the point of it? 

 If it fails in these terms, then perhaps it may be wise quickly to toss it into the nearest garbage bin. 

 Thus therefore Reid’s challenge is for us to be cautious about our “conjectures and theories.

 For they may not amount to much!

  They may in fact be useless! 

 Reid’s own approach in the exploration of life’s great questions was to steer clear of empty theorizing and to instead study with great attention and humility. 

 Attention and humility are required to know the truth. And then to be willing to abandon a theory, story, or political philosophy that, upon careful scrutiny, turns out not to bear any relation to reality. 

 In the 1930’s, for example, almost nobody among Europe’s intelligentsia wanted to give up the narrative that something wonderful was unfolding in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.

 Leftists everywhere so much wanted the revolution to succeed in Russia that  they ignored what was really going on, lest conflicting facts threaten their world view. 

 And, sad to say, the same kind of willful blindness persists today, as reported in the Wall Street Journal recently that, the majority of millennials say they prefer socialism over capitalism.

 For the millennials, communism sounds pretty chill. They say they’d rather live in a socialist country than a capitalistic one. 

 Which is to ignore history, especially twentieth century history, which revealed in stark and gory terms that, wherever socialism is fully implemented, only suffering and sorrow follows.

 The wish therefore of the millennials is a form of hobby horse theorizing, for it bears no relation to reality. 

 To get off that particular hobby horse, the dreamy millennial needs to be mugged by reality.

  Another result of hobby horse theorizing is the idea that everything can be even-steven in the raising of children.

 This lie has been confronted by Erica Komisar, a psychotherapist, who after years of careful research has concluded, "a child needs the special care that only a mother can give.” (James Taranto, The Politicization of Motherhood, October 27, 2017, the WSJ)

 It is crucial, says Erica, that the mother be there, especially in the first three years of her child’s life.

 Her premise, backed by research in psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics—is that “mothers are biologically necessary for babies,” and not only for the obvious reasons of pregnancy and birth."

 “Babies," she states, "are much more neurologically fragile than we’ve ever understood.”

 “Mothers” she says, “need to be there as much as possible, both physically and emotionally, for children in the first 1,000 days.”

 Of course the results of Erica’s research fly in the face of hobby horse theorizers who think that “men and women are fungible (interchangeable) and that all you need is love

 Well, love is not enough. Gender differences matter.  Nature and biology matter.

 As the lowly caterpillar understands in its search for just the right food to eat.

 By nature, the little creature knows that not any leaf will do. 

 As Thomas Reid wonderfully puts it: The 'lowly caterpillar will crawl across a thousand leaves until it finds the one that’s right for its diet.’ (referenced by D.N. Robinson in his lecture on Thomas Reid)

 Yet another form of hobby horse theorizing is Hegelian in nature. William James once commented that when listening to a Hegalian he had the sense of someone who was always going up in a balloon

 And here’s why. Hegel wrote about there being a thesis, followed by its antithesis.

 The challenge, according to Hegel, is to do a synthesis between the thesis and the antithesis. 

 It’s an effort to combine and merge two opposite poles.

 But in order to create your synthesis - in order, for example, to create a marriage between the good and evil, or to merge heaven and hell, you have to minimize the good and evil on the one hand, and minimize heaven and hell, on the other. 

 David Berman calls the attempted merger a "flawed metaphysics, for "not placing a higher epistemic value on the pure extremes or opposites (thesis and antithesis) and placing it instead in the synthesis, which is said to absorb what is true in the two opposing extremes." (David Berman, Absolute and Final Desire: Plato or Buddha, p. 147 of 279, Desire, The Concept and Its Practical Context Ed. by Timo Airaksinen and Wojciech W. Gasparski, Praxiology, Volume 24)

 To create your synthesis requires therefore that you cannot take either good or evil seriously. 

 You have to, in other words, think of the good as less than the good, and evil as less than evil. Nothing then is really good and nothing is really bad. 

 The result of the shallow synthesis is a mushy mishmash.

 And you end up in what I call the grey zone, where there are no absolutes. Where there are no Divine imperatives. 

 The philosophy of greyness is the attempt to diminish the colourful drama that life is, which by its nature, is a struggle between good and evil, and between heaven and hell. 

 In choosing greyness you might as well put on a Maoist grey coat and move into grey row housing to create a match between your thinking and your life.

 But if - bless you - you become weary of living in the grey zone, you can choose to come back into the colourful drama of life itself

 You can break out of the greyness into the colour of life by understanding that you were made to know the truth, just as the caterpillar was made to eat only certain kinds of grass.

 You can flee from the grey zone by the understanding that your own consciousness is meant to be employed to create an alignment between your thinking and your life.

 Indeed, this is the point of consciousness - to regulate an unruly brain!

 For left to its own devices, the brain tends to be “popping off constantly."

 Unregulated by consciousness, there is only a “booming, buzzing confusion of things.” (D.M. Robinson, adapted from his reflections on Williams James) 

 Consciousness needs fully therefore to be brought to bear upon our lives through the full engagement of the will, attention and selection, as William James emphasized. 

 It is our own consciousness that has the ability to pick out what to react to, and what to ignore.

 James proved the power of consciousness in his own life in a long battle against melancholy.

 He was able finally to break out of the melancholy by choosing to sustain one thought over against others.

 Thereby affirming for himself that we always have the power - the free will - to choose one thought instead of another, in whatever circumstances, however dire. 

 The choice is always between life and reality, versus the emptiness and uselessness of hobby horse theorizing.

 And there is no time better than now, to get off some dam hobby horse that’s keeping you from the truth.


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