Do we study primarily to find the truth about the world outside of us, or to find out more about who we are? Both can be desired, and both can be achieved, but which one is or should be the main thing?
It’s strange, because I feel like I switch back and forth. One day I’m convinced it’s about the truth outside, and a month later it feels like it’s all about a sort of self-discovery. Until just recently, I couldn’t understand the reason for the waffling, and the answer to the question posed above.
I had an insight: I think there’s a sort of chiastic structure to true studiousness. It begins as outward-looking, then turns inward, and then returns to an external focus. This happens on a large scale, but the structure also duplicates itself in smaller cycles within that larger intellectual journey.
I think we have to start as outward-looking. People don’t really tend to begin studying philosophy or theology for instance (the two subjects I’ve spent the most time studying) simply in order to understand themselves better. We want to know something about the big, confusing world, want to know how to handle ourselves well in weighty conversations, want to be knowledgeable.
But necessarily, if we’re thoughtful, we will quickly be turned inward. What was it that led me to this field of study in this first place to look for answers? Why am I more compelled by this one school of thought than any of the others, even though at this moment I cannot yet articulate an ironclad argument for preferring it? Why are these words and terms meaningful for me, and what meaning did they carry for me in the time before my studies?
We come to realize that the intellectual traditions we’re now consciously and strenuously studying have already been subliminally shaping us and our society for lifetimes and centuries. The study of the questions becomes a kind of self-discovery. What have I always assumed, and why, and are there people who don’t assume it or is this starting point a part of being human? This stage can be so exciting and significant that it feels like our genuine reason for studying, even if on its own it could hardly motivate a single person to set out on the journey.
And then there’s another inward step. We start to build our minds. We start to assemble a new set of assumptions, convictions, proofs, starting points — new beliefs that are considered from the outset, weighed, articulated. This is always done with assistance from outside ourselves, but it necessarily happens, when it happens, inside, alone, with painstaking effort.
And then lastly, with a new inside formed by years of diligent study, we are able to look outside ourselves again. We are able to search for truth with the ability to fight against our unborn tendency to filter the truth into forms that are most agreeable. Having begun to understand ourselves, we can begin to understand the world around.