The philosophical sailor
Do we explore the sea of knowledge for true wisdom or for shiny abstract riches easy to obtain?
We knew little of it when we, as young sailor students, first explored this sea of knowledge. Some old Greeks had found some islands they called truths and found some preferred methodology for their sailing. Most of us had these thinkers presented to us in school as different and isolated islands, each with its unique shape and an insinuation of a treasure cove somewhere on them. In those coves, we got a faint hint of something glimmering, promising great value, we were told. Still, we couldn't see what it was or where any specific island was, either, for that matter.
Everything is made out of water? Of numbers? Why can't I step into the same river twice? Questions that were treated as part of the subject of history with facts to get straight, more than any real explanation of the implications of these thoughts and the perspective of reality they gave. They were merely strange ideas some people had long ago, just like the belief that the earth was flat. Name X believed Y, we learned. Now it's time for a quiz.
This gave an impression of philosophy as a set of ideas to remember. Which specific person through history proposed it. Learn the facts. This was not a very good start for what could have been an opportunity for curious young sailors to explore coves and the ideas they contained concerning direct matters to our lives, different perspectives of the world, and our place in it. A more profound understanding of anything of worth eluded most of us.
Then, later in life, some of us, for some reason, got to the shore of this wild sea again, and the lust for adventure overtook us. Without knowing where we were going, we set sail. We raised the flag of inquiry as we became increasingly familiar with the regular routes and which islands are most popular to visit - and this time with determination to loot the treasure cove of its shimmering valuables. Many traders were selling self-drawn sea maps on how to find the true treasure, especially for the very oldest of coves, that for millennia or centuries had been visited and looted to the degree that it was hard to get in there yourself without being influenced by all those before you, which spread their loot wide and far.
God was dead? Why? Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions? Which passions and why so? Why has this cove become a cave of people refusing to leave it but instead watching shadows as if they were real? Why can't I trust my reasoning to be true? How do we know that we actually know what we think we know?
How am I to understand any of this? Not making it more accessible is the fact that almost every island, except for the ancients, refers to someone else's ideas tucked in somewhere in another cove that you previously never heard of, which you should (or must) investigate and understand before continuing searching the first cove for treasure, because you will otherwise not find it. Repeatable phrases are written on each wall and easy to remember - similar to the idea X and person Y quizzes from school, and isn't that a good enough form of knowledge anyway? An eager sailor might be tempted to think. What would a 2 600-year-old Chinese man have to say that is relevant today on any deep level? Maybe just memorizing the ideas and having surface knowledge of what the different schools of thought have proposed through history is, after all, what knowing philosophy is, a young sailor might be eager to think. It makes for sounding brilliant in conversations, anyhow. A motivation to learn the words used, citations are essential to impress, how different thinkers disagree with each other, and maybe to find a favorite we could add to our new identity of someone "knowing" philosophy. To be a Hegalian, Kantian, perhaps bold and exotic as a Neo-Platonist, or going against the current and proclaiming to be an idealist.
This surface philosopher has plundered the riches of the greatest thinkers through history to "know" their words and what they proposed, but only in the same sense of reading a history book of medieval kings of how they reigned and which diplomatic relations they had to other kingdoms. Distant, abstract facade of knowledge with no real real-life applications, which no real sailor would settle for.
The adventurous sailor speaks to the cove of others, hearing echoes of the past and giving them what can be a one-man dialogue with the other's thoughts. After having gathered the core premises and assumptions of many great thinkers and loaded our ship with this knowledge, it is time to raise the sails and set course for unchartered waters to get a clearer view of what they have told us, without all the noise from all others that claim to know the "truths" their idol has spoken.
Away from it all, we raise the black flag of the sailor that seeks his own island with a treasure like none other, not because of fame or to impress but for the exploration itself and into oneself. Somewhere on this vast sea, we lower our anker, and bit by bit, an island rises from the sea - but its cove is empty of treasure. Instead, it is filled with hundreds of reflecting crystals, mirroring the sailor that enters and combining this self-image with the shimmering light from the other treasure coves on islands both near and far away.
Here the sailor can sit in solitude and see the reflection from the treasures of the others we now better know and have the light reveal the relation to the shape of our rising island; to ourselves. Understanding the different implications and true meaning by seeing the world through the multitude of perspectives from the great thinker's treasure, which we found out is not trapped in their respective coves. Instead, the totality of their lifelong search can only be seen from a distance with your newly found perspective from the top of your island.