Saturday, September 26, 2009

Heidegger and Monty Python

After reading the section from Heidegger’s Discourse on Thinking and listening to the class discussion on meditative versus calculative thinking, one of the first things I thought of was this Monty Python skit,

In this skit, the German and Greek philosophers team up to compete with each other. After the whistle blows though, neither team takes any action and every philosophy is immediately immersed in their thoughts. For almost the entire game the ball is not touched, as the philosophers wander around the field thinking. Finally, Archimedes gets an idea, enlivens the Greek team, and Socrates scores to beat the Germans.

In regards to what we read and discussed today, I think that this skit is a goofy but clever caricature of what Heidegger calls meditative and calculative thought. With the two teams, Monty Python paints a stereotypical portrait of philosophy. All of the famous philosophers have their heads in the clouds, thinking on thinking, expounding great philosophical principles and theories, but with nothing at all to show for it. The soccer match is boring because philosophers are shown to be good for nothing except thinking, while even their thinking is just a fruitless waste of time. Heidegger explicitly addressed this portrayal of philosophical, or meditative, thinking when he wrote that one perspective is that “mere meditative thinking finds itself floating unaware above reality. It loses touch. It is worthless for dealing with current business. It profits nothing in carrying out practical affairs.” Monty Python further drives this point home, that the meditative thinking of philosophy has no practical outcome, by including Archimedes on the Greek team. A mathematician, Archimedes alone has the kind of thoughts that actually do something in the world, and as a result it is Archimedes whose ideas alone carry enough weight in the practical confines of the game to move the rest of the Greek team behind him. As a result, this skit brings out the contrast between calculative and meditative thinking by showing calculative thoughts to have practical results for the world we live in, while meditative is empty of any meaning at all and a waste of time.

Like we discussed in class though, a caricature of meditative and calculative thought does not capture the fullness of them in Heidegger’s perspective. Meditative thought is not worthless or even impractical: as Heidegger claims, “at times it requires a greater effort...more practice...[and] in need of more delicate care than any other genuine craft” (152). While it is easy to lampoon the philosophers as doing nothing that has any relevance for the world in which they live, the ideas of philosophers have had huge impacts on all sorts of issues and have come out in very tangible results.

Maybe another approach from the Monty Python skit, though, is questioning if the study of philosophy is necessary for meditative thoughts. On the one hand, philosophy deals directly with the meditative thoughts and seeks to answer many of the basic and profound questions of existence. On the other hand, it is possible to have these thoughts without studying or majoring in philosophy at all. Philosophy has also been lampooned as a study for the privileged, for the people who are well off enough to have time to spend speculating and theorizing instead of actually doing work. While Heidegger would argue that people who do not care about issues of their Being are this way because there is no language to speak of Being, no practice at this thought, with the result being a though-poor population, another response might be that the people who do care about Being are only people who have enough free time and money to worry about it. Even though philosophers traditionally have not been very well off in regards to wealth, I think it is still an interesting argument that those who can practice philosophy have a certain level of comfort and freedom above some of those who are thought-poor, who do not think about their existence, perhaps as a result of actually being caught up in an every day struggle to continuing existing, without having the time or concern to think about it.


  1. I love this skit and think that it does point out the percieved uselessness of philosophy. And it is an interesting point that meditative thinking can only be practiced by the priveledged few. However, Heidegger points out that "anyone can follow the path of meditative thinking in his own manner and within his own limits" (152). He claims that we should meditate on what concerns us because we are naturally inclined to this sort of thinking. Although very few people (published philosophers) can make a living out of this type of thinking, I think it is important to realize that everyone should engage in it. In almost every job there is down time where you can stare off into space for at least a few minutes, and I think Heidegger would advocate that we use these moments to meditate.

  2. Your question of meditative thought without philosophy is a point of contention in my philosophy senior seminar. The issue is whether or not philosophy as a distinct discipline is necessary to perform the role it has traditionally held, as members of other disciplines often weigh in on metaphysical or epistemological issues. Examples of this are evolutionary biologists lecturing on the development of morality in humans and behavioral psychologists defining "free will." As far as the ivory tower argument goes, philosophers running the gamut of socio-economic positions are part of the Western canon, so this is a non-issue. However, a real question arises when many prominent modern philosophers have devoted their energies to interdisciplinary studies, such as Derrida or Foucault. The distinction of "philosopher" from "historian" or "human rights theorist" blurs. On a separate note, the charge of impracticality may have seemed a shock to pragmatist philosophers of the early 20th century, as they placed the basis of what is "true" on an idea's practicality for life.


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