what philosophy is, continued

How it all began for me:

When I was around fourteen my dad — who was a born-again Christian, which led to tension with the rest of the family who remained Dutch-immigrant Calvinists — took me to a revival service.

I had no experience of revivals.  I didn’t know about altar calls.

Some of my readers may not have encountered that expression before.  An “altar call” is when the choir sings Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling, while the revival preacher suggests that while everyone’s eyes are closed you can surrender yourself to Jesus and come up the aisle and kneel to signal your repentance.

Well, that revival service ended with an altar-call.  I surrendered to it — and walked up the aisle — with tears in my eyes.

My family worshipped every week at a Christian Reformed church; prayed at every meal and read a bible passage at dinnertime every day, attended Sunday School half of the year and catechism the other half.  I had no complaint to make about any of this at the time, and — in general — still don’t.

But the religion we practiced every day of our lives was not the sentimental evangelicalism of that revival service.  It was Dutch Calvinism, for farmers.  It did not consist of altar calls, but of doing good for your neighbors and for your family and for people in need.

The call I surrendered to that night came from far outside my ordinary experience of what might be involved in the worship of God.  It’s no surprise that I was so bowled over by the sentiments and the emotion of the altar call.  Especially by Softly and Tenderly.

It was a powerfully spiritual moment for me, at fourteen.  Such moments do not generally deserve the mockery they get in some public discourse.

But spiritual moments, inevitably, must subside, and become less exalted, more mundane ones; by the time we got home that night, I was wondering what was supposed to happen next.

To be continued… .

What Philosophy Is

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is a path of inquiry undertaken by those who are sensitive to, and disturbed by, general dislocations or fault-lines in their inherited or paradigmatic cultural patterns.

Is it intellectual?

Most commonly yes, but not necessarily so.  Every one of us, as we come to our adulthood, may find apparent discrepancies, or outright contradictions, among the various systems of thought in which we have been raised.  Some people, depending on their personal inclination, may ground their personal living exclusively in one such system; some, in an adhoc synthesis of elements from several systems; some turn, in early adulthood, to some new system – new to them, at any rate – that appears to render all previous ones obsolete or irrelevant.

Is philosophy necessary?

For every person?  No, not at all.  It is possible to live fully, completely, satisfyingly, entirely within the range of a single cultural system and its vocabulary and practice.  Many do.

Then what is it for?

The inquiry is undertaken only by those who are sensitive to, and disturbed by, general dislocations or fault-lines in their inherited cultural patterns.  In general, these are resolved when the fault-lines are eased, the dislocations cleared, the colliding conceptual systems brought into harmony.

Can you give me an example?

As a child, I absorbed the religion of my family and culture.  I also absorbed the ideas about science common to mid-century schoolbooks.  By the time I was fifteen it was clear that many things asserted in one of these systems were incompatible with things asserted in the other.  I began trying to figure these out.

The effort of doing so constitutes a path of inquiry.  Every person undertaking any such inquiry is engaged in philosophy, whether self-consciously or not.

The work of philosophy, as I am characterizing it here, is not intrinsically an academic subject.  It may be, in some times and places; in the high middle ages, it was academic, but during the renaissance it was not.  It became academic again in the early 18th century and remains so to the present.

Can you give me more?

Other situations likely to put someone on such a path might be:

  • a person disinclined to spiritual language might devote a lifetime to understanding those who speak such language;
  • conversely, someone who uses the language of spirit naturally and fluently might devote a lifetime to understanding those who don’t;
  • a person naturally committed to logical methods and abstract thought might evolve anthropological sympathies, and come to completely rework the deepest foundations of his thinking (i.e. Wittgenstein);
  • a person of great mathematical ability, possessed of a profoundly mathematical imagination, might attempt to describe or interpret the entire range of human experience in essentially mathematical concepts (i.e. Descartes).

But philosophy, you said, is not necessarily intellectual.

People who devote themselves to this inquiry may find themselves engaging in dialog with others, to establish their path, their errors, corrections, indubitable premises, even the naming of things.  Each path is solitary, but it is necessary to confer with others on their paths.

The most obvious medium of discourse for such dialog is human language; and if language, then concepts, logic, argument, syllogism.  And so a great deal of the history of philosophy can only be told in stories of reasoning, of logic, of conceptual exercises.

In addition, however, there are paths of inquiry that express themselves within the domain of conduct alone.  In such contexts – e.g. monastic practice whether Christian, Buddhist, or otherwise – profound communication may conduct itself at the level of action alone, unmediated by dialog or indeed by any verbal commentary whatsoever.

So one might conduct his inquiry in total silence.

Yes.

I have some difficulty with that.

Yes.  So do I.

But it does me good to think about it that way.