Tag Archives: Descartes

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.


I have some difficulty with that.

Yes.  So do I.

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


Animals Learning

An interesting little report in The Register this morning.

Old notions die hard, right?

For example, Rene Descartes and his argument that animals are automatons.  Only humans think, because only humans have souls.  Animals don’t have souls, therefore they don’t think; the only existence available to them is as unconscious biological mechanisms.

I despise this notion, and Descartes for promulgating it.  I know from the histories of philosophy that he wasn’t the only one to believe that — it was popular among a certain class of 17th-century intellectuals — but it’s his name that is stereotypically associated with the idea, right down to the present time.

It’s wrong.  It’s false.  It’s provably, observably, factually false.  This is not a vaguely philosophical “Matter of Opinion” issue, like that goofy notion of his regarding Minds and Bodies and the pineal gland.

Well, Descartes was not an empirical researcher.  He was a mathematician.  He was a brilliant mathematician — and a pathetically inept philosopher.  (It’s extremely instructive to compare his methods with those of somebody who really was a researcher — his older contemporary Galileo.)

Animal intelligence is, in fact, a proper matter for straightforward scientific investigation.

For the past five or six decades, people have been conducting just such studies.  Their results have given us increasing confidence that animals really possess — in misty, simpler, sometimes rudimentary form — most of the same kinds of sentience that we humans do.

These results, inconspicuous as they are, have consequences for much bigger questions, concerning . . .

  •  human language and its origins
  •  the origin and persistence of human religions
  •  the nature of animal, human, and artificial intelligence.

I’ll get to those in time.