Clown Philosopher

René Magritte. Son of Man, 1964, with lego spin off.

I have a friend who fancies himself a bit of a class clown, only he’s middle-aged and there’s no class. Truth be told, he’s a self-made millionaire, retired, loves sports, travels the world and has as much fun as humanly possible. But he also likes to stir up trouble. When he’s alone with me, he poses tricky philosophical questions: what is happiness? What do we do with people who spread hateful ideas? My friend reasons like this: if you hate hateful people, aren’t you yourself being hateful? Sometimes I take my clown philosopher seriously and engage in a discussion with him, examining the pros and cons of different positions. Just when I think the discussion is coming to a close, my friend returns to the beginning and tries to restart the entire argument again. What began as an amusing exercise quickly becomes tedious because there is no way out.

At this point, I realize my friend is not a philosopher. Philosophers attempt to free our minds from falling into circular traps, repeating the same arguments over and over.

We are all a bit like the clown philosopher. Every analyst on TV is a clown philosopher, offering critiques and advice that no one is ever likely to adopt. These experts and analysts are armchair critics who are neither methodical, nor do they invest their own time and money in solutions. As my high school principle, Colin Purdy, used to say, “In the absence of rigor, young people will be motivated to do absolutely nothing.” I would add “in the absence of method and a personal stake, there can be no solution for any problem.” A tool kit is required to lend direction out of the maze.

Keyhole. Painting by Doug Pope, 2010

For example, a tool kit might involve some familiarity with similar arguments from the past. Asking yourself: has anyone else ever asked this question? Has anyone else tried to solve this problem or a parallel problem? Are there any useful models of intervention that can be adopted? Problems have symptoms and root causes. Solutions that treat symptoms tend to be superficial and inadequate. Treating root causes requires big picture thinking. Everyone will have different ideas about this. So consensus-building exercises are required. One may need some guided thinking. Budgeting is required. A method of accountability is required.

Taking action is preferable to armchair solutions so a flawed initiative is preferable to a rarefied proposal. The solutions that appeal to me are ones that start small and offer the potential to scale up. In this way, real-life tests can be carried out that don’t exhaust all of one’s resources.

The Clown Philosopher opens another question: Why should anyone take you seriously? No one will take you seriously if you’re not willing to make an investment. The investment comes in many ways, starting with background research, educating yourself about an issue. On the other extreme, you might want to financially contribute to a cause or become a spokesperson for a cause. These are proofs of commitment. There is a danger in committing to one side or another too soon, before you have worked through a problem, articulating different approaches, different stakeholders and different contexts in which the problem can be understood.

These kind of commitments get you to the table. Also you have friends and connections, so you bring partners with you. The whole thing is about relationship building. As I see it, everyone sits at one table or another, while dreaming of getting to a bigger table. We all have some small influence over our families or friends. We fantasize about having more influence in our jobs and communities. Everyone is in this position–janitors, presidents and CEOs. The premier of the province sits at a big table on a local level, but has no seat on a worldwide table. He needs partners and investors. He needs a problem and a method. And maybe a clown.

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