As I often note, only rarely does philosophy have any practical value. Mostly, philosophy is what you do when you have few practical concerns–perhaps because you are a rich gentleman of ancient Athens or a modern-day tenured professor, or perhaps because you are sitting around a campfire and deep conversations go well with alcohol (at least for awhile).
But there are important exceptions to this happy uselessness of philosophy. In this post I would like to present such an exception, a philosophical principle that tends to have countless practical applications, even though it is one of the most ancient in Western philosophy. It is this: whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.
I’m going to do my best to explain it, but I would first urge you to memorize the principle in exactly that form. After all, part of the fun of philosophy consists in being able to trot out cryptic statements of that sort at pivotal moments. You want it to sound as opaque as possible–provided, of course, that you can actually go on to explain it if people aren’t willing to just accept your pronouncements.
The idea of the principle is that the nature of a thing cannot simply overwhelm the nature of whatever receives that thing. Okay, I still sound cryptic. Here’s another try: if you pour beer into a champagne flute, then the beer takes on a certain shape determined by that flute. And, you can only pour in a certain amount of it: even if you think it would look pretty classy if you drank your 40 oz. out of a champagne glass, it just isn’t happening. It is not the “mode of the receiver” (the champagne flute) to hold that much beer. (At least in this world of sorrows.) To continue this analogy that should probably not be continued, the champagne flute also does not taste the beer, because it is not the mode of that receiver to be made aware of flavor. But a different receiver–like a human being–could receive those aspects of beer. Along with a hangover.
But there are other applications of this principle beyond those that so very much impress my college students. Consider this delightful little article by Anita Elberse that LinkedIn thoughtfully sent to me yesterday (in its never-ending quest to actually see me become gainfully employed). In the article, Elberse draws some shrewd business lessons from the 2007 stunt in which the world-famous violinist Joshua Bell played in a Washington, D.C. Metro station and was roundly ignored. Her takeaway: it is not enough to be talented, one must also have a strategy to alert others to that talent. Or, to put that differently, a good product is not enough, one must also have good packaging.
Why? Elberse offers hints of a psychological explanation: one must compete for people’s attention. But that is really just a specification of that general principle that what is received depends on the receiver. If one’s receivers are finite human beings, this means they have limited powers of attention. This puts obstacles in the way of their reception of things like the music of Joshua Bell, or your tremendously witty Tweets, or whatever else it may be. This means that if you would be heard, you need to think about your receivers, and perhaps even try to help them to get into the proper “mode” to receive what you have to say or give. If you are a student of mine, this might involve actually putting a well-formatted cover page on your paper and spelling my name correctly (so rigorous, I know). Or, if you a young man hoping to propose to a likely young lady, this might involve taking her out for a nice dinner or in some other way giving evidence that you are something more than a self-centered bucket of slop.
There, how was that for practical?
But lest you think I have cheapened philosophy with such tawdry practical applications, allow me to end with a more theoretic point, for the significance of this principle goes all the way to the top, as it were: it extends even to questions related to God. For example, in the dense and difficult Book V of The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius ponders whether the infallibility of God’s foreknowledge of everything that will occur means that human freedom is just an illusion, that God is some sort of cosmic puppet-master controlling human actions. His solution to the problem (via his character “Lady Philosophy”) is to invoke a slightly different specification of our same principle: the character of what is known depends on the knower. A knower is, after all, a receiver like any other. As Lady Philosophy speculates, because God is an eternal knower, the character of his knowledge is bound to be different than ours. Since an eternal knower would stand outside of time, whatever such a being would know would be known with 100% accuracy; to put it differently, the events known would appear to such a knower as being necessary, even if the actions were, in themselves, completely free.
All that is just to say, take my advice and memorize this principle: whatever is received is received according the mode of the receiver. Its range of applications makes it well worth having in your “philosophical toolkit.” And don’t worry–it never needs sharpening.