Monday, October 17, 2011

The Point of Philosophy. Part 1.

This is a multi-part topic. Part two is mostly written however I expect there 'll be atleast four parts in total. Not writing them all out first is dangerous as I may end up wishing I wrote this first post differently. However this way I can respond to peoples comments and hey, maybe even change my ideas!

Further the answers as we progress will get more and more uncertain so helpful comments are very appreciated. 

The works of some philosophers
would make excellent table legs.

Whenever you do something regularly it starts to feel unnatural to partition off that activity from just living. At least that’s how it looks when I watch those superbly fit people doing stretches at the park. It’s certainly how it looks when I rock up unannounced to a friend’s house and they’re making some complicated dish that for me would be a major event. I feel like that with philosophy and theology. Sometimes it takes more effort for me to do anything else. However this post is about making the activity of philosophy and theology explicit and asking “What’s the point?”

It’s a pertinent question because I’ve recently been struggling with writing in a vacuum. While I was bemoaning that feeling, my partner identified that I don’t have a community. I’m a non-theist asking questions about God, I’m a non-student who tries to be a scholar. I’m not surrounded by fellow academics or a faith based community. So why do what I do?

Firstly some definition is necessary. Philosophy is the attempt to articulate our thinking and that of others usually with a value placed on going “deeper” to our primary assumptions. Don’t allow “thinking” to lead you to only consider certain kinds of algebraic-looking “thinking” as Philosophy. That’s logic. Philosophy includes a very broad idea of “thinking” including inspiration, intuition and even plain old dumb guessing as well as logic. Basically if you’re thinking “Do I think?, the answer is yes. 
One answer to why we do philosophy is that we can’t help it. If everyone agreed with everyone else then possibly philosophy would never come up. As soon as disagreement occurs some of us at least are going to ask why and whether we or those who think differently are wrong. Those questions are going to cause us to (rudimentally perhaps) articulate our thinking.
I don’t think that’s much of an answer because we can help doing philosophy. Certainly I can do less philosophy than I currently do. This is blog post sixteen after all of a mostly philosophy blog. We can all try and avoid disagreement. When we can’t we can label our opponents mad or evil or liars. We can punch people who ask us why we think we’re right. It’s reasonable to expect we’ll do less philosophy this way than if we celebrate the practice of articulating thinking.
Here's my rebuttal, Sirrah.
So we’re back to asking why DO philosophy after all. You could say philosophy is just a more powerful form of punching people (with our thoughts) who ask us why we think we’re right. With this rationale we are for a particular orthodoxy -no questions asked- and the whole value of philosophy is figuring out where those who disagree with us have departed from that orthodoxy so that their heresy can be cut off exactly at the base of the branch. Our weapons are wit and insult and argument. We can also use this sort of doing philosophy to police ourselves as well – to ensure that we are not deviating from orthodoxy. This is what Philosophy looks like in the hands of the Spanish Inquisition (now called the Doctrine of the Congregation of the Faith). It’s also what it looks like when Scientology does it. Can you imagine a world where philosophers for hire exist purely as thought cops for this purpose – pruning a communities thought processes to fit their employers design? In fact we’re there already – they are called management change consultants or corporate culture experts.

The classic alternative to this policing function of philosophy is that we care about TRUTH. For some this is the only alternative. In this approach our thinking “needs” to correspond with reality –this “need” can be considered a primal need like hunger, a divinely gifted longing or a self imposed goal (a need by choice basically). This approach encourages us to view the philosophy of those we disagree with not as weeds to be plucked out of a community but as potential sources of learning. The activity of doing philosophy in this approach is not merely to police but to develop and even overturn our own thinking if necessary. This is generally what Philosophy looks like in the hands of the “spiritual seeker” – that is one who is trying to align their self with reality even if they would depart from one spiritual tradition and enter another to do so. That’s not to say that a spiritual seeker can’t also stay in one spiritual tradition too. It is that they are not a loyalist to that tradition before or above the search for truth.
Two problems face the spiritual seeker however. One is that philosophy under the direction of a commitment to Truth can compete with our other needs such as for companionship and community or if not actually competitive Philosophy doesn’t inherently value these concerns. The image of the Truth seeking philosopher might be someone like a young Ludwig Wittgenstein. He constantly fought against his need for other people so as to maintain an isolation that served his work.  If you don’t know Wittgenstein you probably know the image; the unfriendly, tactless, driven scholar who considers their desire for company a weakness. If this is philosophy its fruits appear to be only self-referentially relevant. It is hostile to our social selves and the joys of life. Ultimately we will ask why we are cultivating that kind of thinking. It may be orientated towards truth but it isn’t always healthy. I think those in relationships with people who do a lot of philosophy may understand this point best.

Secondly what are we to do if we discover that Truth can’t be known? The spiritual seeker recoils from this statement as a matter of LOYALTY to their mission not as a matter of TRUTH. Paradoxically this means a betrayal of their mission. Even if they believe that Truth can be known the spiritual seeker knows their commitment to Truth in philosophy is not absolute. In the matter of Truth’s knowability they are a loyalist at heart.
It’s this realisation that has almost led me to give up philosophy more than once. It’s not so much that I despair that truth can’t be known but that I don’t know how to proceed with honesty and integrity without just assuming that truth can be known (which is itself a little dishonest and dis-integritous). Proceeding past this impasse was something I had to do before I started this blog.
And when I did proceed further a whole new territory opened up. This territory is defined by a new motivation. And I’m filled by a new joy. The image of the young Wittgenstein doesn’t have to be my ideal. We can celebrate life with others. That’s quite a relief to an extrovert like me. Ironically it was probably the older Wittgenstein who gave me the final inspiration to be in this territory.
You see in the end Wittgenstein was something other than a classic spiritual seeker. He was uncomfortable with his feelings for others and often a fish out of water (as a gay man in between the world wars from a foreign country and class) but he was also a lover of his friends, a sentimentalist (he carried a well read copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Tale) and enjoyed working with others who shared his way of seeing problems. In fact he was actually always pragmatic. Wittgenstein felt that philosophy’s purpose was to liberate us from the burdens of philosophy. You could even say that Wittgenstein saw the need for Truth as one of those burdens.
In my next post I’m going to explore a bit of this exciting new territory. Feel free to comment if I’ve already stopped making sense because after this it gets weirder.

No comments:

Post a Comment