While philosophers most often wrestle with academic problems that generally do not impact their personal lives, sometimes we do consider such matters. Sometimes we are forced to do so.
I wrote my dissertation on the problem of universals. To make a long story short (and less dull), the gist of the problem is solving what it is for a particular (say, Obama) to be of a type (say, human). Currently one of my concerns is what it is for me to be a runner.
I have this concern because after almost 30 years of running I finally sustained an injury (ladder and stupidity related, of course) that prevents me from running or even walking without a massive full leg “soft cast” and a crutch. I’m seeing a specialist Thursday to see the full extent of the damage. Since I have defined myself as a runner for decades, this injury has hurt me both physically and metaphysically. Runners who are reading this know what I mean. Non-runners are no doubt thinking that my injury is but a small thing in comparison with the serious woes of others. I agree: things c0uld be much worse. I could be dying of cancer, I could be starving, I could be in prison in a despotic state, and so on. But, as with each of us, my situation is significant to me.
In some cases, being or not being something is fairly straightforward. For example, take a tree. When a tree is chopped down and burned in a fireplace, then it is clearly no longer a tree. However, the situation changes when being something involves an intermittent activity rather than a constant state of being.
Running, obviously, is an intermittent activity. Even when I was running everyday (without missing a day for 23 years) I was not running non-stop. However, I would say that I was quite obviously a runner even when I was not actually running. Of course, it might be tempting to say that I was only a runner while running and not when I was not running-this would neatly and easily solve the problem.
However, that neat and easy solution does not satisfy. To use a silly example, imagine that at a party a friend introduces me to Sally and says “Mike is a runner” and Sally says “No, he’s not. He’s not right running now.” That would, of course, be an odd thing to say. Intuitively, I would still be a runner even when I’m not running. Just as I am still a philosopher when not philosophizing or a teacher even when I’m not teaching.
However, there do seem to be limits to being a runner (or any similar thing). For example, suppose someone introduces George as a runner and George says “well, I haven’t run in ten years.” In that, case, it would seem reasonable to say that George was a runner but no longer is one.
In my case, my plan is to return to running no matter how bad my injury turns out to be. I figure this is easily doable: I’ve seen people running who have lost both lower legs. Perhaps my intent to return sustains my status as a runner.
However, I do worry that at some point in time I will no longer be a runner-just a guy who used to be a runner. Just a guy who hopes and plans to run again some day as he watches his running shoes gather dust. Because I am quite familiar with the line drawing fallacy (a variant of the false dilemma), I know that there is no specific line between being a runner and then becoming a non-runner. Hence, I cannot mark a specific date on my calendar with “no longer a runner.” But, I do believe that if I go too long without running, I will cease to be. A runner, that is.
I suspect that the non-runners reading this are wondering what the big worry is-what is so important about being a runner? Why does it matter?
The answer is, of course, psychological: it matters because it matters to me. It matters because being a runner is part of who and what I am-should I lose that, I lose a part of myself.