A few days ago on Facebook, Jason Read compared packing up your house with creating a systematic philosophy: when you start up, everything is so perfectly organized, but by the end you’re throwing things wherever they will fit. We just moved this weekend — my entire library is pictured above, in cube form — and I have been thinking a lot about that analogy. It seems to me to work on a lot of levels.
Most notably, the point of packing up your house is not to have a final account of your belongings. In other words, the goal of packing is to make it easier for you to get somewhere else. There is something satisfying about imagining everything in its perfect and predestined place, but aside from the intrinsic appeal of organization, the real goal there is to make unpacking easier, almost effortless — or in other words, that you will have developed concepts that can effectively guide action.
After a certain point, of course, an excess of systematicity can become a problem: it slows you down on both ends, as you misguidedly dwell on the packing process and then waste time explaining the beautiful seamless rationale to those assisting you. Similarly, on the philosophical level, too all-encompassing an account can be paralyzing. Take Hegel, for example — if you read his work and ask, “What do I do now?” the answer is mostly, “Keep reading harder to make sure you get how everything fits together.” The same problem doesn’t arise with something simpler and more rough-and-ready like existentialism, where it doesn’t take long before you can start thinking about your life in terms of the basic concepts. (Similarly, in theology, Karl Barth’s vast system can easily become an end in itself, while Paul Tillich’s more broad-strokes approach is much easier to apply — something I find myself doing a lot despite not being much of a Tillich “fan.”)
Obviously simplicity isn’t an unalloyed good — existentialism might be more like jumbling everything together into boxes and sorting it out when you get there, which is a suitable approach for the dorm rooms of those who most enjoy existentialism but less helpful for a more fully-developed adult household.
I could probably extend this metaphor sooner, but the more systematically I develop it, the less room there will be for others to riff on it.