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USU Philosophy Professor Accepts He'll Never Know Himself

Tuesday, Oct. 08, 2019


Charlie Huenemann

Looking inward is the first commandment of philosophy, but Charlie Huenemann didn’t know if he believed in such a thing anymore.

He thought about this as he hiked up the Wind Caves trail, a song by the piano composer Phillip Glass playing in his ears. His dog, a border collie named Maggie, moved ahead of him.

“Who am I?” the 54-year-old philosopher asked himself, as philosophers do. “Do I really know myself like I think I do?”

He looked up at the summer sun. It offered no answers.

Huenemann thought about another philosopher who enjoyed climbing up mountains while pondering philosophical questions. Although Friedrich Nietzsche was buried more than a century ago, he battled the same questions as Huenemann. Nietzsche, too, believed most people don’t even know themselves.

The burden of a philosopher was as it ever was.

For the first couple years of his teaching career at Utah State University, Huenemann figured he had most things figured out. Now a quarter-century into his tenure as a professor of philosophy, though, he says he’s in a regular state of doubt. Those doubts may never be resolved, but Huenemann is fine with that.

He has realized looking at one’s behavior is more important than looking at one’s thoughts, which has helped him accept he’ll never truly know himself.

While Huenemann was working as a professor, he began to reflect on his teaching. “Teachers get a lot of encouragement from students. They write nice things and thank you notes, which is great, but I think a lot of times people are coincidentally there when the students develop a skill,” Huenemann said.

He started to think hard if he was actually being helpful to students or not. Such thinking led to even deeper questions, especially since this was when he discovered Nietzsche.

“I admire Nietzsche,” Huenemann said. “His thoughts on self-knowledge are like when a doctor gives you painful medicine to feel better. At first, it causes discomfort, but it’s better for you in the end.”

Huenemann pities Nietzsche, too.

As a young boy, Nietzsche had a tumor growing in his brain, which caused him a lifetime of headaches. He faced the challenge of his own mortality and went mad at around the age of 50. 

The philosopher wrote books and tried to sell them, but no one wanted to read them. The last 10 years of Nietzsche’s life were spent in an asylum.

Since his discovery of Nietzsche, Huenemann has been skeptical about one’s inner self.
The philosophy professor contemplates theories of the past considered wrong today, such as the geocentric model. He has adopted the attitude of “everybody lies,” which is from the character Gregory House in the television series called “House.” He is reading articles about pragmatists like John Dewey, who say the meaning of a sentence has to do with the work of the sentence rather than the sentence’s meaning or feeling.

Huenemann also keeps a journal of his thoughts. “Periodically, I’ll review my journal and realize I have written an idea four different times. Each time, the idea seems new, but the journal is proof it’s not new,” he said.

However, Huenemann doesn’t let these hard questions overtake his life, as he doesn’t see them as a struggle. Instead, he looks at his own behavior over his inward thoughts and ideas.

“We can deceive ourselves pretty easily,” Huenemann said. “To help with this, I look to action and experience. Experience is the great test of our knowledge.”

For example, according to Huenemann, if a person claims to believe in climate change but still drives their car, they’re a hypocrite. Or if another person thinks they’re miserable and horrible, but their actions say otherwise, then their actions speak louder than their words.

Huenemann looks to what others say about him, too. If a student says he’s a good teacher, but they’ve never taken one of his classes, he doubts their evaluation of him. “I look for reasons why they might think that about me,” Huenemann said. “If they find a good reason, I say to myself, ‘Oh, they must be right.’”

According to USU assistant professor Harrison Kleiner, it’s not surprising to him Huenemann is so skeptical about one’s inner self, as philosophy draws people who are interested in self-knowledge. “Some philosophers would say we know more about the weather on Jupiter than we know ourselves,” Kleiner said.

Kleiner has known Huenemann since the fall of 2004. At the time, he had been looking for a job in philosophy, and Huenemann gave him one. The two became fast friends, and eventually the two argued philosophically about their different viewpoints on the inexhaustible task of acquiring self-knowledge.

“One time he said to me, ‘Harrison, the difference between us is that you believe things and I don’t,’” Kleiner said. He chuckled. “Charlie thinks ‘I’ is an illusion. I don’t think the self is an illusion.”

In Kleiner’s eyes, Huenemann believes there may be nothing really to know, which gives him a detached observation between himself and the rest of the world. “He has these habits of living that are working out for him, so he keeps doing them. I think we have a reason for doing things,” Kleiner said.

While Kleiner may not completely agree with Huenemann’s view on life, he sees the benefits of his mentor’s thinking. There’s some health in being cool, calm and collected like Huenemann, according to Kleiner. “People are made anxious in thinking they have to fight the world in everything they do, but the world is going to move on without them eventually,” Kleiner said.

For those who are struggling to know themselves, Huenemann offers three pieces of advice.
First, be patient. “People who don’t know themselves often feel inadequate. They must realize knowing themselves is a work in progress,” Huenemann said.

The second step is mindfulness. According to Huenemann, the best way to do this is to “try to distance yourself from your thoughts by passively observing them.”

Lastly, one should look out for other people. Trying to discern one’s lack of self-knowledge is selfish in Huenemann’s eyes, so, to combat this, one can look out and love other people.

While this advice isn’t all encompassing, it has helped Huenemann mentor his children.
Hanna Huenemann, Charlie Heuenemann’s daughter, said while her dad had never directly talked to her about his thoughts on self-knowledge, they have talked about aspects of the self on several occasions.

“I find my dad to be someone who is easy to talk to about self understanding, as he has his own discoveries about himself every so often,” she said. “I think he’s happy to adjust for what he learns about himself, and he doesn’t mind not knowing everything.”

Huenemann’s son, Ben Huenemann, said, “My dad has a very logical mind, which he applies to work and every social situation,” he said. Ben Huenemann experienced this first-hand when he took his dad’s intro to philosophy class at USU.

According to the 18-year-old, every once in a while his father decides to play video games for two hours and then spends the next two hours not playing video games as maybe some sort of self-discovery exercise. His dad can’t help but look at video games philosophically, which is why the book “How You Play the Game: A Philosopher Plays Minecraft” was written.

“He likes to come up with his own things,” Ben Huenemann said, even if those things are playing “dumb, specific games like ‘Skyrim’ or ‘Minecraft.’”

Huenemann could never come up with a true definition of himself, though.

Huenemann and his family stared in amazement at the Temple of Apollo, the supposed place of worship for the ancient high priestess called the Oracle of Delphi. Although the Greek ruins weren’t bigger than the Quad at USU, they provided a thrilling reality of the origin of the Delphic maxim “know thyself.”

In the summer sun, Huenemann walked around the site, his family following close behind. He wasn’t overwhelmed by what was left of the Temple of Apollo, but he wasn’t disappointed, either. He imagined the inscriptions once written on the front of the temple, thinking about the people who engraved them.

“All these people try to know the universe but think knowing themselves should be a no-brainer,” Huenemann said.

The first commandment of philosophy crossed his mind.

“I guess I’m still trying to fulfill that assignment,” he thought to himself.
 


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