Contemplating Suicide Made me a Philosopher

After spending my whole life reading and four years studying philosophy, economics, and political science at the university level, I reckon that I didn’t do a minute of genuine philosophical inquiry until I was living in isolated seclusion in a house without running water in the Chilean Andes at the age of 28 and on the verge of suicide.

For the first time, I experienced philosophy as something other than a parlour game for bored intellectuals. More than a debate to be won, with points to be scored for cleverness. Instead, I encountered philosophy as something that was literally a matter of life and death. When a person is finally no longer distracted with the mundane preoccupations of daily life — consumerism, social gossip, politics, what to eat, what to wear, etc., and is forced to seriously grapple with Hamlet’s question, only then does philosophy mean anything relevant at all. Only then is it more than idle speculation.

Philosophers need to have skin in the game.

The philosophy I started doing at that stage of my life far exceeded the philosophy I was reading. Indeed, the extent of the philosophical reading I did during this period of time was to read Kierkegaard’s personal prayers from his private journals, his book Sickness Unto Death, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, an obscure book about the the mystical tradition of Orthodox Christianity, and a re-reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliance” and the book of Ecclesiastes from the Old Testament.

Søren Kierkegaard

In addition to this, I meditated on the words of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the 91st Psalm. That was about it. There was no Plato or Kant or Hegel or Descartes. I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anybody. I didn’t need to convince a professor about the existence of God or the non-existence of physical reality. I was just trying to find a reason to live.

I started writing again — taking the somewhat risky step of philosophizing in public when I hadn’t even reached any useful conclusions myself. But I found it therapeutic, and in a sense, I wrote my way to sanity. I re-launched my blog on September 20, 2011, which was my 29th birthday, with some thoughts about Time and the nature of Becoming. I look back now on some of those early writings and sometimes cringe at things I wrote then, about which I have since changed my mind. There are times I consider taking down some of these older writings, but I’ve resisted the temptation because that writing is a critically important record of my own Becoming.

It is a train of thought that led me to where I am today, and it gives me more comfort than cringing to look back on it. When I now from time to time am overcome by the dark shadows of dread, and I feel I’m in unfamiliar territory, with no idea of how I got here, and no idea of how to get out, I can trace my steps back to September 20, 2011, my re-birthday, and see that I got here on purpose. That I am much less lost now than I may feel to be in the moment. It makes the dark moments shorter and more tolerable, and keeps me from the dangerous temptation to throw everything out and start over again.

This journey has since led me to the re-exploration of human psychology through various lenses, but especially focused on deconstructing and reconstructing Jung’s archetypes into something more tractable and easy to understand for practical purposes. That inquiry provoked me to think more carefully about the nature of reality in Time and Space, and I have scribbled countless pages of notes about the subject, only to just now think I might be able to say something coherent on the matter.

One of the disappointing consequences of doing this unbiased, tabula rasa, first-principles exploration is of course the discovery that I have come to conclusions similar to those other people had already reached. I hate seeing one of my seemingly original thoughts turn out to not be very original at all. But that’s just my own pride and vanity trying to get in the way of approaching Truth.

In the end, I’m glad to have done the thinking myself — because I know they are my conclusions, not just convenient and clever-sounding ideas grafted from another person’s mind and called my own. It has the added benefit of feeling a bit more sane. If I came to the same conclusions independently that respectable minds had also reached, then maybe I’m not as crazy or alien as I feared.

Lastly, it gives me the opportunity to compare notes with other philosophers. I can see the different ways they approached the same questions, and how that led to nuanced differences in their conclusions. It allows me to read philosophy more critically, with the assumption that I already have a starting point, and it’s their job to convince me that I’m in error.

It would otherwise be too easy to read an intelligent person’s arguments, and follow their line of reasoning so long as it made good enough sense, even if I might have reached a different conclusion had I done all of that thinking for myself first.

Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it most eloquently when he says in “Self Reliance,” that “there is nothing at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

I spent too many years of my life influenced unduly by smart people and clever argumentation. The integrity of my own mind can only be maintained by solidly thinking through the questions of life myself and reaching my own conclusions, even if it means re-doing work that somebody else has already done.

This does not mean there is no value in reading philosophy. Quite the contrary! Reading the work of other people similarly engaged in the active inquiry about life is one of the most enriching and fulfilling experiences for me. The formulation of their thoughts, the words they choose to use, the sensation that they too were real, living breathing humans struggling to make sense of their own existence is an incomparable joy. I love chewing on the fruits of their minds and no genuine thinker can avoid confronting their ideas.It’s merely that such reading should be a supplement to and not a substitute for my own thinking.

One of my philosophical role models, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who lived out the principles I’ve just described, ended the Preface to his final work, Philosophical Investigations, with a similar thought:

For more than one reason, what I publish will have points of contact with what other people are writing today. If my remarks do not bear the stamp which marks them as mine, I do not wish to lay any further claim to them as my property…

I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate somewhat to thoughts of his own.