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Angst Academy: The Philosophy Institute Brings Ideas Out into the World

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By Hugh Iglarsh

Let’s face it, philosophy is an odd beast: It is Reason contemplatively munching on its own tail. As a process, it dissolves innocent beliefs that had been minding their own business into a vertigo of nested questions and pregnant uncertainty. In our pragmatic society, philosophy is often seen as a respectable pastime for tenured navel-gazers, but about as relevant to virtual modern life as the Gnostic Gospels in the original Aramaic.

And yet… among the swarm of adult ed offerings that promise some combination of knowledge, power, success, libidinal satisfaction, affirmation and expertise to a paying clientele, there is one local enterprise that has somehow found a niche for itself selling only gnawing doubt.

J.P. Rosensweig’s Philosophy Institute: Bringing Ideas to Life (thephilosophyinstitute.org) is a graduate seminar for the ninety-nine percent—an unpretentious and inexpensive exercise (eight two-hour weekly sessions cost $180, with a sliding scale) in open-minded self-examination that provides no answers whatsoever to anything. But by cultivating the questioning, critical spirit, the Institute gently assists students in breaking through cultural conditioning and achieving the spiritual freedom that thinkers from Plato to Sartre have identified with the bold, agile and unprejudiced pursuit of truth.

The Institute’s process is itself Socratic in nature. The classes, which take place in cafes and other congenial spaces on the North Side, begin with brief philosophical readings, which are thoroughly explored by participants. Rosensweig himself rarely offers his own opinion on the matter at hand, which can range from the meaning of authenticity to the paradoxes of altruism. Instead, he points out additional interpretive possibilities and extracts further questions. By leaving it open, he keeps the issue alive, creating the possibility of an aha moment weeks or months down the road, when a life situation intersects with a textual insight.

The Institute also hosts one-day sessions and discussions in locations ranging from white-shoe Manhattan law firms to downstate music festivals. The goal of this varied and unpredictable effort is to bring philosophy out of the cloister and into the street—where it can, if not change the world, at least open it up a little to discussion and break the crust of mental habit. Rosensweig cites philosopher Martin Buber, who observed that there are two types of teacher—the propagandist and the midwife, who brings forth the student’s unrealized understanding. “That’s my model,” he says, “to open up a space of questioning, and to expand people’s resources for making decisions.”

The New York-born, Yale-bred Rosensweig started the Philosophy Institute in 1999, following a rich but ambivalent experience as a graduate student in the field at the University of Chicago. Viewed as a star student, he discomfited his practical-minded advisors by submitting a work of original philosophy.

“They told me to just pick somebody famous and write about him,” recalls Rosensweig. “My main advisor reminded me that I was in training to get a job, and I needed to write things that would be seen as favorable by those doing the hiring.” The message seemed to be that authenticity is a fine thing to study, but should not be attempted at home. “I learned a ridiculous amount at U. of C.,” he adds. “But what really struck me as a philosopher-in-training was how little value was placed on going where the questions led you.”

And so Rosensweig left the ivory tower for the rocky, unmarked path of freelance philosophizing, dividing his time between teaching and writing. “Of all the philosophers I love, a surprisingly large number—like Spinoza, Descartes and Hume—were not university professors,” he notes. “If Nietzsche had submitted any of his works as a dissertation, it would not have been accepted—no footnotes.”

The nature of the academic institution, with its specialization, Brahminism and careerism militates against any meaningful public voice or role for philosophy in America. “In Finland, they saw the high rate of alcoholism and suicide during the long winter nights as a kind of existential problem, so they hired a philosopher to chair the committee studying it,” says Rosensweig. “In the U.S., that would have been unthinkable.”

As a public philosopher and educator, Rosensweig’s goal is to recreate an Athenian atmosphere in Chicago, inviting anyone and everyone not just to study the great philosophers, but actually to do philosophy—whatever that means. The discipline has been described as a search in which you don’t know exactly what you’re seeking or how to look for it, there is no airtight way to know you have found it, and the means of looking are themselves up for grabs. The surest sign that you are doing something resembling philosophical inquiry is a nagging disorientation, as the ground underfoot loses its shared and reassuring solidity and your life, as Heidegger put it, is suddenly at issue for you.

It is understandable why, rather than gazing into the abyss, one might instead choose to watch the Bulls on television. But the problem is that philosophical problems sneak up on us anyway, giving us the choice of either facing them armed and ready, or being ambushed by our own unexamined assumptions. “Raising kids, for example, involves fundamental issues of philosophy—it’s all about conveying values about how to live one’s life,” says Rosensweig. “Everyone at some level is living in accordance with some philosophical ideas, but maybe they’re not fully articulated.” And it is in the process of articulating an idea that one becomes more acutely conscious of the world and oneself.

Software designer and entrepreneur Paul Caswell, who at last count had taken eight Philosophy Institute courses, testifies to the value of Rosensweig’s method. Trained in science, Caswell realized at a certain point in his career that, although he was successful in conventional terms, something did not feel quite right. “I was walking somebody else’s path, spending my life working in a way not true to my beliefs.”

Inspired by what he experienced at the Institute, he started a company based on certain openly enunciated, non-monetary philosophical principles, and enthusiastically quotes Marx, Thoreau and Nietzsche in his mission statement. These guidelines help ensure that Caswell is making his own decisions, not those of his rivals or the media or the culture as a whole.

Classes are “so different from the lecture experience,” says Caswell. “Everybody is heard, and the philosophy you discuss becomes your own. I’ve always been a searcher, and my goal is to live more authentically in the world. For me, that’s what the Institute is all about.”

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