Getting Things Done, Philosopher Style

by Chris Berger

Attempting one’s first steps into philosophic thought is a daunting, frankly reckless, and directionless gamble. I say directionless because good guidance is at such a premium and reckless because we seldom have a clear idea of what we want out of it. As for daunting, those who take such a step with confidence know not what they’re getting into.

What is the best point of access to such an adventure? For most of us, that entrance is Philosophy 101 or some equivalent. A friend once ventured over a pint that, if Socrates were to be wrenched from his native fifth century BC and dropped onto a twenty-first century campus, the first place he would go would be an anthropology class – anthropology being, literally, discourse on human beings. (The notion of a specific set of classes on philosophia, the love of wisdom, would, I suspect, strike him as comically redundant in a place of higher learning.) She went on to speculate that after hearing the opening remarks and being handed the syllabus, he’d run out screaming. Of course, she was half-joking, but I’m inclined to think she was right on both serious and comedic counts.

To extend my friend’s hypothetical scenario, I think Socrates’ next attempt after fleeing campus would be West Edmonton Mall (“I went down to Banana Republic…”).  But it probably wouldn’t be long before security was all over him after he began accosting the local shoppers. This may all be a goofy thought, but it points to the pressing question of where one ought to turn if one is looking to satisfy certain longings. Where do those burning questions arise? In a highly specialized cloister? Or in more humble, ordinary experiences and settings among everyday people?

Some time ago I had an exciting and troubling conversation with friends and a new acquaintance over a bit of wine. The point of departure for the chat was initially a book we’d read together, but the conversation quickly broadened, as it does. This time, it was in to a bit of musing on what there is “left to do” in philosophy.

Our newcomer was about to depart to the University of California to kick off a PhD in philosophy, specifically in the “Analytic” stream, examining language. While he was putting a brave face on it, he said he found himself conceding to certain authoritative figures of the Analytic school that philosophy now finds itself left with not much else to do but to clarify a final few residual linguistic details. As such, and on a more serious note, he expressed hope that what he was doing might still have some “aesthetic value,” even if it may not necessarily break new ground – there being, after all, nothing really left to do.

A quick detour for those who may not know the background: a contender for the title of most important philosopher in the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, championed the movements of language analysis and logical positivism, laying down the precepts of what we today call Analytic philosophy, a dominant force in modern academic philosophy departments. (Wittgenstein’s most widely regarded rival for the title, Martin Heidegger, is unsurprisingly the cornerstone figure of the Analytic school’s Continental counterpart.) Particularly in his earlier Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein spurred movement away from the types of comprehensive questions which had heretofore occupied philosophers’ inquiries and toward strict analysis of language. Essentially, he sought to bypass those traditional philosophical problems by way of technique and methodology.

Enter the famous and now-ubiquitous fact-value distinction – so ubiquitous, in fact, that we no longer recognize it as an innovation. It just seems self-evident to us, and those who would question that self-evidence risk appearing as contrarians or crackpots. In a broader sense this distinction can be traced back to its roots in Hume, but in the strict and polarized form in which we now know it, Wittgenstein is pivotal. In his Tractatus, facts are what make up the world. Wittgenstein was concerned with what can or cannot be said; specifically, he was concerned with propositions, which are statements of the facts which make up the world. This means that, in and of themselves, propositions can have no value. Facts are what they are, and since the world is made up of facts and facts only, then everything else – justice, morality, beauty – must come from somewhere else. In sum, they’re not real; they are not of the world.

As a consequence of this, since we would then only be able to give an adequate account of things about which propositions (statements of cold, hard fact) can be made, not only can we not venture answers to the big questions philosophy used to tackle (since these concerned the Good, the Beautiful, the Just, et cetera), we cannot even ask those questions to begin with, and still expect to make any sense. To wit, the final line of the Tractatus is: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” In other words, if it cannot be stated in strictly logical, essentially mathematical language, it is basically meaningless – you can appreciate something aesthetically pleasing about it perhaps, but past that, you cannot hold onto it as anything substantial.

This is the stake through the heart of philosophy. Indeed, Wittgenstein himself was compelled to conclude by his argument that philosophy was impossible (this must be why he looks so dejected in those pictures). He went on in his later book, Philosophical Investigations, to backtrack on a lot of what was argued in Tractatus and offer instead the idea that philosophical problems are due to misuse and misunderstanding of language – instead of being flat-out impossible, philosophy is now merely clarification of language. And perhaps there’s some fleeting aesthetic enjoyment to be found, as well. I can appreciate why a prospective philosophy student might be a little less than enthusiastic about this, and in turn why the seemingly sole alternative – Continental existentialism and deconstruction, whose only response to the relativity of values is the relativization of facts as well – might come to be the only attractive option for the disillusioned seeker.

This bleak scenario undoubtedly fails to satisfy the nagging sense of longing that initially turns so many energetic, curious youngsters onto philosophy out of high school. These young people have big questions about big problems. I find it initially heartening that so many young people voraciously tackle the material and experiences they think will help them resolve questions such as who or why to love, how to act, what to esteem, or in sum, how to live. Then I am dismayed; how is it that tenacious, remarkably talented and intelligent young persons, so eager to bite into those big questions, graduate – and go on to graduate school – clarifying language and logical theorems, on the one hand, or discounting the entire effort as relative and therefore impossible, on the other?

My humble view on the matter is that we’ve been going about this all wrong. Like our time-travelling Socrates, young souls with longing flee screaming from Anthro 101 (or Phil 101, or English 101, or what have you), but unlike Socrates, they have no material left to work on once they find that what they have been peddled just doesn’t do it for them. The real problem is that they no longer have the example of Socrates to tease out the awareness of what they lack and want.

Rather than continue on the path of modern philosophy departments and their accomplices in the rest of the humanities and social sciences – culminating time and again in the dead ends of either language clarification or the only readily visible escape from it, existential nihilism – perhaps we ought to rethink from scratch what philosophy really is. After all, these “traditional” or fundamental and universally human questions – what is important, how should I live, who should I love; in sum, the questions Socrates asked – are the questions that asserted themselves front and centre, and refused to go away, for the greatest and most energetic minds the human species has produced throughout its recorded existence. Call me a skeptic, but can we seriously be expected to believe that, conveniently, we simply happened to have exhausted the possibilities now, of all times? Can we really rest uncritically satisfied with the notion that “there is nothing left to do”? Not only is the erotic soul stubbornly dissatisfied by this; we can see, factually if you will, that the questions, too, stubbornly remain, their relevance undiminished.

Philosophical liberation in its fullest requires awareness of the truly important questions and problems. It is this awareness which we appear to lack now. We denizens of the post-Enlightenment world may be surprised to hear this. Was not the Enlightenment supposed to have increased our knowledge and hence our awareness? Perhaps, and in many ways it has. But I would argue that, by increasing our technological mastery over certain aspects of nature, it has also given us false confidence and inflated our sense of self-importance. It has led us to think we know more than we do, and perhaps more than we even can. So the big questions no longer appear to us as questions. Where people once inhabited caves, as per Plato’s imagery, dominated by parochial shadows of prejudice and false opinion, we today inhabit a cave beneath the original cave.

Perhaps we can put it this way: when the Enlightenment sought to turn the cave inside out so as to expose its contents to the light, it may have failed to understand what the cave was, i.e. what made the cave a cave. It may have gone too far in assuming that all human beings can be presumed or re-made to be rationalists seeking the light. So, in fooling ourselves into thinking we have banished shadows and illuminated our cave, we have added yet another layer to our own cave, or another barrier between us and recognition of the peculiar prejudices delineating our horizons. Because we mistake our shadows for light, we are that much further away from recognizing them as shadows. We are that much further from recognizing them as question marks.

So, what we need to do is to rediscover those questions that were once front and centre, regardless of the parochial prejudices of the day. Plato in Greece, al-Farabi in Islam, Augustine in Christendom, Cicero in Rome, Lao Tzu in Taoist China, Maimonides in Judaism – regardless of their differing attempts at answers, all recognized certain questions as perennial. It was the modern Enlightenment that rebelled and tried to regard certain questions as settled.

The first step would be to break out of the suffocating straightjacket of modern scholarship. One does not need to bash academia in order to see that layer upon layer of specialized, jargon-laden publications and branch upon branch of exclusive sects remove us from firsthand confrontation with the questions that define human life.

So, where in life do the most interesting questions arise? That seems to be in our interactions with other human beings, specifically when we try to figure out between ourselves how we ought to live with one another, whether in love, in friendship, in justice, or in security and comfort. We really do seem to be political animals. But as the peaks of our species also demonstrate, we are not quick to rest satisfied with mere opinion on these matters, either. We want to know for sure, in the best case, that what we are doing, feeling, and thinking, really is the best and truest. So we are political animals who also desire to know. And what we desire to know most cannot be satisfied by the platitudinous language of “values.” The awareness of what it is we desire is factually valuable, and more valuable than certain other kinds of facts.

So the entry point into philosophical thinking, understood in the true sense of a love of wisdom about stuff that matters to us in our lives, would then seem to be a love of wisdom about political things, if by “political things” we mean things relevant to our living together and our deliberation over how to live together.  The love of wisdom about such things would seem to be political philosophy.

And yet, this doesn’t really do it justice either. “Political philosophy” in this conception just refers to one “branch” of philosophy among many possible others; “political” just denotes the subject matter. This does not seem to leave us much better off than if we had opted for one of either Analytic or Continental; either way, philosophy is just one subset out of a much larger curriculum, rather than a love of wisdom, period.

But having said that, “political philosophy” in the sense described above does open our door to an understanding of philosophy that reflects comprehensively the entire human experience, both our relatedness to and situadedness among other people and our individual imperfection which yearns for completion and perfection. It is genuine philosophy insofar as it comprehends itself and its own activity. 

It is this profound tension between the contemplative and political sides of our nature which the second understanding of political philosophy, not as philosophy about “political things” but as philosophy in a “political way,” not only acknowledges but acts upon. It takes into account humankind’s timely situation, and it lives the philosophic life with the full understanding that humankind is a political animal. Indeed, to live the philosophic life in the only meaningful sense is to live the fully human life, and this means to understand human and not only cosmic or mathematical things.

Political philosophy puts the human being front and centre; it and it alone is fully self-aware; it is only one part of the far larger and more complex whole, but it is that peculiar part which is open to the whole by virtue of knowing that it is only a part of a far larger whole. In my estimation, no contemporary of ours has put it as well as philosopher and classicist Seth Benardete, who described political philosophy as the “eccentric core” of philosophy as such. 

Political philosophy, or philosophy in a “political way,” is the eccentric core because it and it alone is guided by and always returning to the question: why philosophy? Why is it important, why is it important for life, why is it a good life, the best life?  It is constantly justifying itself, not only before the bar of the political community which mistrusts its annoying questioning, but before the bar of its practitioner’s own critical, needy intellect that wants to know and be sure it is practicing the best life possible.

All well and good. But how do we recover such an understanding of philosophy as a way of life, as the best way of life, and not merely as a specialized academic subdivision? To answer such a question is to determine what First Philosophy, namely, what the raison d’etre of or initiation rite into the philosophic life, is. As we’ve said, the entire history behind philosophic thought, leading from classical antiquity through the Enlightenment to logical positivism and subsequently existential nihilism, barricades our way to the experiences which used to prompt the big questions. Without getting too presumptuous, it could be ventured that the study of the history of political philosophy, i.e. the history of philosophic thought about humankind’s relatedness to the whole of things, holds the key for new students’ discovery of the philosophic potential of life.

When we study the history of political philosophy with open mind and open heart, we open ourselves to the possibility that our own time and our own place may not be as authoritative as it might have initially seemed. The study of history, as Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Polybius, and Gibbon have all taught, shows us that one’s own is not all there is. This is what makes history the natural ally of philosophy: recognition of something other than one’s own. It becomes philosophy when, as erotic lovers, we embrace and proclaim novelist Iris Murdoch’s realization: something other than ourselves is real.

Let me attempt a summary here. Philosophy, as the passionate love of wisdom, is the expression of lack. The true philosopher knows he knows nothing.  Philosophy is erotic – it seeks to fulfill a painful longing, in this case the longing to know, so as to remedy that lack. So, it is a way a life since, being self-aware that he lacks knowledge, including knowledge of the best way to live, the philosopher dedicates his life to funding out. One cannot really love wisdom without wanting to experience and know firsthand the full human potential: knowledge, esteem, accomplishment, and love. Philosophy is longing.

So philosophy begins in what all humans experience, everywhere and always. And as we know, the scholarly gatekeepers separate life, i.e. ordinary experience, from the life of thinking about life. To cut through that, we need to return to something earlier, if only for the sake of gaining our own initial purchase on the matter. Socrates began his inquiries with everyday experience, and he used that as fertile soil for growing toward something higher. Students today either disdain everyday experience and therefore miss it entirely, or they use it to pave over the possibility of growing above it. This is why, for students (and all of us) today, the study of the history of political philosophy is First Philosophy. Not metaphysics, not ontology, not epistemology. History of Political Philosophy. History of political philosophy can remind us of what philosophy is, a tidbit of knowledge without which we are lost. History of political philosophy can reacquaint us with the original questions and the unmitigated, uncompromised attempts to grapple with them. History of political philosophy can reintroduce us to Socrates. It can reintroduce us to philosophy as an innate and perennial possibility, as the way of life spent actualizing that possibility, and not merely some academic specialty.

My hope is that we can preserve this for at least a few thoughtful people, not least of all students. Is there anything left to do? Is there anything more than a merely aesthetic value left in human activity? Obviously. We haven’t solved our most pressing questions. Hell, we don’t even remember to ask them. They need to be asked.

Visual courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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