When we talk about philosophy, we should have some idea what we’re aiming to achieve.
There’s a popular misconception that philosophy has no purpose, other than perhaps to exercise and train the mind. If this were all it was good for, I wouldn’t bother much with it. When I read or write or discuss ideas, I am always hoping for satori, an event of understanding. This Japanese word can sometimes be used to refer to a specific kind of understanding, and it can also be used to describe the sensation and experience of this understanding, which can be so sudden and surprising as to resemble a lightning bolt, or a smack in the head.
But descriptions of satori may over-emphasize its instantaneous nature, because it’s actually not the quickness of satori but rather its permanence that matters most. It’s a popular mistake to think that a lightning-bolt realization must be an ephemeral or elusive thing. Satori can be made of concrete, and can be a sturdy and reliable building block to place further ideas upon. The theory of evolution was Charles Darwin’s great satori, and is satori as well for everyone else who learns and comes to understand the theory. Sigmund Freud’s discovery of dream analysis was also satori, and Einstein’s theory of relativity. Buddha’s moment of enlightenent under a Bodhi tree may be the most singularly celebrated satori in history, but that’s only because there is no biblical record of the specific moment when Jesus of Nazareth realized that the meek would inherit the earth, or Abraham that there is one God. Jack Kerouac once wrote a poignant novel called Satori in Paris, though this is one of his least-loved works, probably because it’s about a guy who goes to Paris looking for satori rather than about a guy who finds it. Sometimes, as in this book, satori makes its presence felt most when it can’t be found
But we yearn for it often, and luckily we find it often as well. What could be more depressing than an entire day without a single moment of enlightenment? We should never let that happen. When we work on crossword puzzles or sodoku games, we may think we’re passing the time or training our minds, but in fact we’re sustaining ourselves with little, constant doses of satori.
Satori is useful, pragmatic. I had a magical moment recently after reading Keith Richards’ memoir Life. Like many guitar players, I’ve never been able to play most Rolling Stones songs properly, because Keith Richards uses an unusual tuning system that involves, among other things, removing one of the six strings from a guitar. I’d always understood this tuning system to be something exotic and strange, but his book contains a couple of paragraphs that reveals it to be simpler than I ever imagined. During the first half of the 20th century, Keith explains, Sears Roebuck began selling a popular model of guitar by mail-order catalog, allowing regular Americans of modest wealth to buy modern instruments for the first time. But many of these Americans were banjo players, and as soon as someone got their guitar in the mail they would remove the low E string and tune the low A down to a G and the high E down to a D, thus turning a six-string guitar into a five-string banjo. This, Keith Richards wrote, is the tuning he likes to use.
I wouldn’t say I had a moment of satori when I read these words, because the explanation seemed so simple that I could barely believe it. But I own a banjo, so I pulled it out, looked up “Rolling Stones tablature” on Google, and within about thirty seconds found myself able to play the main riffs to “Brown Sugar”, “Start Me Up” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, three riffs I’d never been able to play before, exactly the way Keith plays them. This, when I heard the chords ring back perfectly to my ears, was satori.
In this case and many others, satori is essentially a moment of synthesis. I had already known what notes Keith tuned his guitar to, and I’d known how “Brown Sugar” was supposed to sound, and I already owned a banjo. What I didn’t know was that I could put it all together so incredibly easily. One thing I want to emphasize here is that there was nothing ephemeral or elusive about this new insight I’d suddenly gained. The knowledge that Keith Richards tunes his guitar like a banjo will remain useful to me for the rest of my life (especially if anybody ever asks me to play “Brown Sugar”, because I’ll be ready).
Musical satori is probably easier to gain than its more abstract philosophical equivalents. Regardless, this should be our goal, and I have a sense that there are some major discoveries out there waiting for us in the fields of ethics, psychology, epistemology and linguistic analysis that will be just as satisfying, once we put the pieces together, as the sound of a familiar guitar riff emerging from a banjo’s five strings.
As we begin a new year of discussion and debate, here on Litkicks and everywhere else, let’s remember this fact, that there are important insights out there that haven’t been discovered yet, or that have been discovered but not yet discussed, and that important realizations may arrive with great speed and simplicity at unexpected times. That’s the hope that’s driving this “philosophy weekend” project for me. If we end up with empty hands, like Jack Kerouac in Paris, I suppose we can write a book about it anyway. But let’s hope for something better than that.