I begin the story of my learning with an account of the oft-forgotten part of a plant’s root system: the rhizome. As Merriam-Webster describes, the rhizome is a “somewhat elongated usually horizontal subterranean plant stem that… is distinguished from a true root in possessing buds, nodes, and usually scalelike leaves.”
Consider how rhizomes have multiple nodes, unlike a tree that focuses its branches toward one node, the trunk. What is the nature of this multi-nodal relationship? From the definition above and some cursory scientific knowledge, you could say that the roots provide nutrients to the plant, and the shoots provide multiple places for it to sprout up.
But in their book A Thousand Plateaus, although Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari acknowledge this definition, they also use the rhizome as a tool for their philosophy. To them, a rhizome “ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” Rather than needing to actively seek out connections, a rhizome can’t help but make them.
My brain is the rhizome. Ceaselessly making connections, often against my own will and to subjects only tangentially related to my original thought, then latching onto those connections to draw my interest elsewhere. Whenever I have wished to pursue a new interest, this has been how I’ve done so. Find a new interest; make it my obsession for a few days, weeks, maybe even months; lose interest; and move on to the next shiny new thing. Rinse and repeat.
When I was 10, this meant spending a week tracing the tracks of over 300 animals in a sketchbook for several hours a day, only to forget about the sketchbook almost immediately after I was done. At 20, I have changed my major innumerable times, telling my friends “I’m sure about this one!” with each new one.
My inability to learn a topic thoroughly has been a source of my anguish for years. I watched as my peers — interested in math, art, or science — developed their skills over time, and I felt the sting of amateurism — how could I catch up to them when I always started too late? There came a point in my first year of university when I changed my mind about my degree program once every few weeks, becoming more anxious with each switch.
Then, in my second year, I took a class in continental philosophy. I won’t say that everything immediately clicked — in fact, I felt incredibly overwhelmed at first. It seemed that everyone could already reference Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, and Friedrich Nietzsche with ease, and the names Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas felt esoteric to me. But by the end of the semester, I felt a moderate enough interest in philosophy to take the same professor’s third-year course in a similar subject. Up until then, I had been considering adjacent fields, as philosophy itself still seemed terrifyingly difficult.
Something changed over the summer: suddenly, my life was consumed with philosophy. I would spend hours a day reading it, talking about it with my friends from class, and applying it to other media that I consumed. With philosophy, it felt like I could stretch back all the way to the ancients and I still would not be able to build a wide enough base to parse implicit references and double meanings.
In many ways, that overwhelmed me. After learning about the rhizome through that course, however, I realized there was no right way to take on new knowledge; my learning became a single rhizome with many roots reaching out for nutrients. Instead of trying to fixate on one aspect of philosophy or overwhelming myself by trying to learn all of the disciplines, I followed my interest wherever it took me, reading everything I could along the way.
Viewing the rhizomatic quality of my brain as a virtue rather than an abnormality was life changing. I realized that the way I was going about learning was completely counterintuitive to my thought process; how would it be possible for me to find the base of all knowledge and work my way up if I didn’t even think with that kind of directionality? To my mind, any given topic was a web rather than a pyramid, with concepts that would be at the “top” feeding into concepts that would be at the “bottom” as much as the reverse.
But how does one put this thought process to action? I knew that my brain needed a system and structure to learn, but I no longer believed in the system I had previously followed. I decided to combine both. I still think deeply about what I will read and explore, and in what order. However, to keep this sustainable, I had to make the commitment to allow my exploration to flow with my curiosity.
This method wasn’t perfect — I have many unfinished books lying on my desk and dressers. But, by refusing to resist my changing interests in philosophy and instead wholeheartedly embracing them, I was in fact able to maintain my interest in philosophy as a whole. I have come to value my broad, cobbled-together knowledge as a mosaic rather than a mess.
Developing new fascinations has turned from terrifying to exciting, and I feel content letting myself spend hours reading books outside of my designated list. Where will philosophy take me? I am excited to find out.