After struggling for years to come up with a relatively focused topic to write about, I’ve finally stumbled upon one. It was actually pretty easy, I just combined my two favourite things: bicycles and philosophy.
So, yeah bicycles are cool, but what’s the point of philosophy?
I return to this question periodically at times of heightened cynicism. The question could be phrased even more broadly and more cynically: what’s the point? For a (ersatz) philosopher I am rather sceptical about the effectiveness of doing philosophy as a means of engendering action.
One the one hand, maybe it doesn’t need to engender action. One can, at the very least, learn new things or think about things in new ways. There’s plenty of philosophizing to be done that can be open-ended and exploratory. And again, bicycles are cool. Sometimes I just want to talk about bicycles in a somewhat interesting way. Not all philosophy needs to be overtly critical.
But there’s also plenty of philosophizing that is explicitly normative. Questions of epistemology. Questions of ethics. The general problem is this: how do we establish effective relationships between critical perspectives and effective action? One might call this a problem of theory and practice.
The first part of the problem is trying to establish what would count as critical perspectives. “Critical thinking,” such that it is, is a predominantly outward act. The internet is rife with shameless accusations of idiocy. The form of outward critique can increase in sophistication, but people continue to be unabashedly convinced of the superiority of their point of view, while talking past others. Everyone has experienced or witnessed the utter futility of trying to “debate” someone on the internet.
There are some obvious solutions: knowing the facts (and recognizing the limits and uncertainty of those facts), considering multiple points of view, avoiding motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, pronouncing your views tentatively and with humility, and most importantly, turning one’s critical gaze inward rather than outward. It may sound banal, but if everyone read more, and said less, the state of commentary would be improved.
Paradoxically, it is precisely the recognition that people should be more conservative and less self-confident in their viewpoints – that everyone should post less bullshit – that compels me to write. Ideally, it would be great if arrogant know-nothings weren’t given media pulpits to spout nonsense (or better, people didn’t actively and intentionally present misleading information and disingenuous arguments). But since they are (and they do), I feel compelled occasionally to offer a counter-argument.
There is enough evidence to show that people do change their minds, at least on some things, and at least gradually. This is more clear on a population levels than on individual levels. One routinely sees horrible ideas take hold and proliferate. Counter-arguments may not eliminate these ideas, but can at least stem their propagation. And even if we take a cynical view of the public, one in which public opinions coalesce around predominant messages rather than good arguments, it at least seems worthwhile to simply play a tactical game of counter-messaging to bad ideas.
One way of putting it is that winning an argument might be futile, but positively shaping public discourse is possible. Small effects matter too. In any case, abstinence doesn’t seem to be an option, or at least, one that is tolerable to me (I have my limits, however; I’ll probably never engage in discussion in the comment section of a major news website).
The second part of the problem is at least as insurmountable: even if discourse was broadly improved, what would be the effect? It seems that a robust understanding of some problem is neither a necessary nor sufficient cause of action. For example, how many people who are taking personal action on climate change (like riding a bike instead of driving a car) have a thorough understanding of it? Or conversely, how many people who have good understandings of problems take concerted actions in trying to fix them?
So, all this points to why I am always anxious and reluctant to write anything. Yet I persist, perhaps inexplicably, or perhaps because I accept as an article of faith that occasionally ideas make a difference.
Ok, but what does all this have to do with bicycles?
The combination of bikes and philosophy isn’t completely arbitrary. I do some of my best philosophical contemplation while riding my bicycle. And like any widespread human activity, cycling can provide a basis for exploring a range of philosophical issues. But cycling presents more than a source of test cases for general philosophical problems; it offers unique philosophical questions in itself.
For example, the history of bicycle manufacturing offers rich opportunities to explore the notion of technological progress. In the form of the bicycle we encounter an ongoing (I don’t want to say dialectic, but I’m going to say it anyway) dialectic of efficiency and aesthetics. The history of bicycle racing allows us to explore another conception of progress – that of human advancement. And as with any sport, questions of fairness arise, though bike racing has been conspicuous in this regard.
But cycling as sport represents only one of many manifestations of how bicycles have been used, and many have rallied against cycling as a means of competition. Again we encounter questions of aesthetics, but less to do with the form of a bicycle and more to do with the representation of self. A host of cultural attitudes about authenticity, coolness, and fashion follow. And these are just recognizably bourgeois concerns.
Different cultures have diverse conceptions of the meaning of bikes and bicycling. There is of course the utilitarian nature of the bicycle. It serves as a means of transportation of both persons and goods, and a means of livelihood, if not survival. Thus, it is not hyperbolic to say that through cycling we can explore some of most fundamental assumptions that shape our lives: assumptions about beauty, progress, human nature, and quality of life.
Finally, bicycle riding in so many ways can be conceived of as an ethical act, or at least one with ethical consequences. It allows us to test the very organization of our societies, to challenge the limits and explore the possibilities that we give ourselves.