Tag Archives: philosophy

loving wisdom

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.

 

A Thought Experiment

There will be more experiments like this in future postings.  This particular one has occupied me intermittently for several years — it often helps me to reduce religious disputes, as I reflect on them, to their lowest common denominator.

So we posit two populations of persons: tribe-sized, maybe a couple of hundred apiece including women and children.   Presumptively human: identical in biology, metabolism, and neurological processes.  Like us humans in all the important respects, no matter how we prioritize those.

  • Tribe A’s language consists of, oh let’s say      — 5000 words.
  • Tribe B has the same language, but one more word — 5001 words.
    • the one additional word: “God”.

An immediate consequence of that extra word is that tribe B’s language may have an indefinite number of sentences that do not exist in tribe A’s language.

(For simplicity’s sake, let’s stipulate these two tribes have not yet developed writing.  If they’re capable of keeping written records, it’s a completely different scenario.)

We can pose a number of questions about this situation:

  1. Suppose the tribes to be initially isolated from each other.  Then they meet.  How long might it take for the extra word to pop up in their palaver?  How might a conversation proceed from that point?

  2. Suppose them, on the other hand, to be integrated into a single population.  How will members of each tribe identify themselves to each other in daily activity?   Do they need to?

  3. Suppose we just stipulate that there is no distinction between members of these two tribes other than the single additional word in the language of tribe B.  They observe the same phenomena, have the same science, the same math, the same logic.  But we’ve said nothing about their psychology or social structure.

  4. Then what about cultural norms, mores, institutions, myths, narratives?  Is that single word variance enough to generate divergences in these?  Will we find significant differences in moral codes?  Necessarily?  Or contingently?

Of course there could be many more questions.  These are just the first that occur to me.

A Quote From John MacMurray

About twenty years ago I, um, lost my faith.  A lot of what I had believed up till then simply evaporated.

It didn’t even leave a residue.

I have been, ever since, an unbeliever.  I don’t believe psychiatry is science.

Psychology is most likely not a science either.  That could depend on how we define it; I might come back to that before this post is over.

It was a text from John Macmurray that pulled the rug out from under my convictions.  I was reading Persons In Relation, his Gifford lectures from 1954.  Sharply distinguishing the two realms of personal and scientific knowledge, he wrote — with razor-sharp sarcasm —  that “…our objective or scientific knowledge of man is such knowledge of one another as we can obtain without entering into personal relation.”

Poof.  The bubble popped.

In that single moment, an entire closetful of intellectual reservations that had been accumulating over the years blew open and disgorged itself all over my mind.  (That scene in Return of the King where Aragorn, having extracted an oath from the dead, is almost buried in skulls… .)

Experimental conclusions only expressible as probabilities?  Check.  Theoretical entities only dubiously related to anything observable?  Check.  Prohibitions against individual narratives as “anecdotal”?  Check.  Inability to arrive at stable theoretical foundations for even the most basic of observations?  Check.  Prohibition against knowledge by introspection?  Check.

The list goes on and on and on and on and on.

I thought about everything I had absorbed of human nature since I was born, and the sources from which I had learned it: from my own reflections on my family, friends, enemies, favorite stories and novels and comics, movies, and just plain daily news; and above all from my own adventures in exploring my own humanity.

By the definition of scientific objectivity, none of this could count towards knowledge of human nature.  And that’s just silly.

I’ve been asking myself, ever since, how could we ever, here in Western intellectual history,  have arrived at such a stupid conviction.

  • What are we studying when we study psychology?
  • How deeply may one person know another?
  • What can we know about humankind in general that is different — intrinsically — from knowing individual persons?

I’ll be coming back to these topics in upcoming posts.  More than once.