Plumbing and Philosophy

The philosopher Mary Midgley writes that philosophy is like plumbing–we never notice it until something goes wrong.

I would certainly agree that this is true about plumbing. Staring up at the gaping hole in the ceiling through which the cast iron pipe of the only working toilet in the house jutted out, I felt increasingly anxious and dependent upon the plumber, whose track record so far had been spotty. Having two leaky bathrooms gutted and rebuilt this summer has been a real adventure, the kind you tell other people to forgo. I am, however, happy to report that the toilet was restored to working order, so as not to leave us bereft of said facilities overnight.

But I am less sure that we are as dependent upon philosophy, at least in a way we can point to like we can the failing pipe. In America, we don’t recognize our philosophers, as Europeans do, as worthy of our attention on political or moral matters, as commentators with a unique view of the foundation of society or the inner workings of human nature. In fact, Americans don’t even know who their living philosophers are. If they are actually attendant to the commentary of Shields and Brooke, their patience already far exceeds their sound-bite hungry neighbors, who don’t really want to digest real debate from both ends of the political spectrum.

And yet, as we begin another semester and I sense the enthusiasm mingled with trepidation of students new to philosophy, I do believe–and this is what I remind my students of–that we are all already doing philosophy by other names. Certainly we are all already wrestling with ethics. And we carry around assumptions about the nature of our fellow human beings that guide our actions, practice based on philosophical assumptions. It’s just that we have stopped learning to question and listen the way we do as children, who are philosophers by nature.

When I am puzzled or saddened or experiencing righteous indignation in response to the actions of another (be it a politician, a colleague, or a crazy person in my private life), my impulse is to dig down and try to understand. I want to know how it got to that point, how the pipe was allowed to corrode before the leak was sprung. How it is, for example, that for some people acts of kindness make them feel so vulnerable they prefer to lash out instead.

So taking a step back from the site of construction, I look forward to a semester of exploring foundations with my students. It’s a journey we will make together. Let’s hope its less like staring up at piping gone awry and more like gazing together at Frank Lloyd Wright’s drawings for Fallingwater. Hmmmmm, so that’s how it fits together. . . What if we tried this? . .  As my contractor likes to say, “It’s only a wall.” Of course, the catch is always the follow through, but that kind of optimism is a good place to start. 



Tagged with:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *