Thursday, November 19, 2009


Today is world philosophy day. If it is anything it must be a day on which individual, untrammelled, rational reflection is promoted. Why is that of any importance? Well, if you believe Socrates, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. So if you’re living a life that does not include habitual reflection in your own unique way on the significance and purpose of what you’re doing, then your life is not worth living. What this ‘not worth living’ means roughly corresponds to the Existentialist idea of ‘bad faith’ – that is to say, you are living a life that is borrowed from others and therefore not your own.

Pretty harsh eh?

The thing about this sort of rigorous commitment to thinking for oneself is that it’s fiendishly difficult to maintain. Even those thinkers who make great public virtue of it and bang on about the necessity of thinking for yourself often show allegiance to this or that particular school of thought. Do they then think for themselves? They affix a badge to themselves – ‘rationalist’, ‘atheist’, ‘humanist’, or whatever and proceed to articulate the received wisdom of their tribe as if the arguments there in vogue somehow issued from the very purest of unprejudiced rationality. Very often, however, these free thinkers represent the essence of unfree thought, thinking within a particular box and appearing not to realise it. They cite this or that major prophet – Einstein, Darwin, Marx etc. – with great regularity and imagine that their chosen authority is somehow indisputable. We seem as humans incapable of avoiding this sort of credulity.

So is it at all possible to stick to the essential ideals of World Philosophy Day, and if so, is there any point? What’s wrong with a second-hand existence? Why should we not simply scuttle into little shells of belief like panic-stricken hermit crabs? What’s so wonderful about trying to come up with the answer to the world-riddle with nothing but one’s own resources? Perhaps, after all, there’s something wrong with our urge to believe the first set of propositions that strike us as reasonable.

Since all philosophy is a linguistic activity and since language is a group activity, it would seem impossible to practise it outside of a group. Practising it inside a particular group seems to condemn one to the speech and thought patterns of the group and eo ipso to second-hand thinking. The freest thinker still has to follow certain prevailing assumptions and thought-patterns. The point about examining one’s own assumptions is to get out of the straightjacket of prejudice, preconception, received wisdom, dogma and other similar rigid thought-patterns that afflict the human race. So what’s the point?

The point of sloughing off all inherited and acquired thought-patterns and linguistic conventions does not appear obvious at first. It seems to lead to extreme scepticism, cynicism, nihilism and related negative states of mind. But that is merely a first impression. Scepticism is analogous to depression in that it is a highly disagreeable, negative state that once worked through brings real benefits. The trick is not to connive with the depression or the scepticism by adopting it as one’s (more or less fashionable) attitude and thereafter wearing it like a badge. Scepticism is only a means to an end and the end in question has been discovered by some of the greatest philosophers in history. It is the insight that there is an insight beyond language and that it is this that generates all insight expressed in language. Something analogous happens in ethics, when the understanding dawns that virtue lies not in obeying rules, but in grasping the essence of vice.

Philosophy that a) relies wholly on language and logic and on the rules of discourse and b) promotes some particular brand of knowledge as final, will never do any more than create a cosy little huddle of consensus. In creating consensus it will inevitably create opposition to the consensus. So philosophy would seem to be able to accomplish only the creation of yet more second-hand thought and the perpetuation of discord. Unless, that is, the insight of some of the greatest philosophers of all time (Socrates, Kant, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein to name just four) is taken seriously. This insight involves seeing that language can only take us so far and that beyond language there is only the attitude of listening. One listens to the world and to oneself listening to the world and one leaves the generation of new insight to the strange chemistry of mind and world that generates all philosophy. A common word for this is ‘creativity’. Creation is a universal, unpredictable process; and one is oneself inseparably a part of it. But far from rushing into language, having gone beyond scepticism one simply recognises one’s own intimate and dynamic connection to all that is. Giving voice to this subsequently in language is a tricky business, but that is where real philosophy begins.

Fostering the ability of true critical thinking, the ideal of World Philosophy Day, is not as straightforward as many who advocate it seem to believe. So a word of caution: develop a fine nose for intellectual despotism and beware of little ideologues and dogmatists disguised as free thinkers.

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