Musings on beginning (again) in philosophy

This being the one hundredth post on this blog, I thought I’d take the moment to publish some musings I’ve had on the function of the non-professional philosophical essayist, which is how I identify myself – and this is how I identify the scribes of many of the blogs that I read. I read blogs by professionals as well, of course – professional philosophers, professional scientists, even professional novelists. But I still read many blogs by writers who, like myself, are not seeking professional credentials or financial remuneration for their writing, yet still pursue their interests in philosophical readings, philosophical questionings and discussion. But why do they?

Reading some of the more technical literature in contemporary professional philosophy, one would think that the history of philosophy forms a kind of closed system, with professionals engaged in filling in details rather than pushing forward the philosophic project – the human seeking after wisdom. But this is not really the case. Basic questions remain, and some basic questions will always remain, because they can never be answered once for all, but only in a limited and contingent way within a given cultural and historical context.

So, whatever the future of professional philosophy, there will always be a felt need, among the educated and intelligent, to ruminate on questions of deep concern to human beings, in a philosophical manner.
So, in a sense, although philosophic lines of thoughts seem to reach either final conclusions, or sometimes simply dead-ends, those of us who feel the urge toward greater wisdom, are rather challenged to renew the search for it, rather than throw up our hands and surrender to the “conventional wisdom” (ideologically approved variance of opinion) of the day.




So: We are going to begin again. Philosophy always begins again, philosophy is the art of rational beginning.

There is no market place for ideas. Ideas are not commodities. One does not consume ideas. ‘Ideas’ that sell well – i.e., punditry, soundbytes, memes, on the web, on television, even in books – are not necessarily of any value other than they make the consumers feel good about themselves. What good idea could possibly make a human being feel good about a self? About having a self? about being a self? Ideas do not make us feel one way or another if they are any good at all. A good idea, an ideal worthy of thought, should be pure thought, and never touch the heart. If the end is producing good feeling in one’s audience, then that is the skill one learns. Ideas have nothing to do with this, only rhetoric. Thus what passes for thought is merely a professional writer at work manipulating the heart of the reader and not probing the mind. That is a production of professional rhetoricians at work, certainly not of seekers after wisdom.

All this is made obvious by the glamor, the celebrity, of pundits and commentators (having no more to say than what they are paid to say), thus increasing the likelihood for employment, as well as providing them with connections necessary to increase their productivity. Why has this not been noticed? It’s because it appears in countries that have become religiously committed to the development of modern industrial-based and investment-based capitalism; and by “religious”, it must be understood that, this is intended literally: we are talking about the continuance (in economic form) of the Reformation, the rebellion against the Church of Rome and all its theological and ideological biases. But not a rebellion against its institutional power; power, in fact, was the object of the contest all along. Consequently the media construction of knowledge – of what can be known in the current social context – has always been directed – intentionally, in the sense that a a certain class of this society as always preferred a certain social environment over possible others – directed towards turning the development of human intellect into a profitable business.

As the battle has raged for the social future of the West, a few thinkers have made various attempts to remove the task of thinking from the market place, recognizing that thinking, when confronted by the demand to produce profit, to produce profitably, must surrender itself to the whims of those collecting the profit, and thus cannot be free. They have not succeeded, yet their continuing inheritance remains a source of hope. Philosophers – not simply in the professional sense, but in the sense of those seeking greater wisdom – have always offered to a society its greatest hope for self-recognition. A society that will not take this hope as given cannot progress; has become stagnant; has entered a stage of self deluded barbarity. Society begins its struggle toward civilization by admitting its faults and flaws. The ancient Chinese of the Han dynasty undertook the construction of a meritocracy [with all its risks and uncertainties] because the stability and security of Chin tyranny proved bloody; painful; and oppressive. A stagnant culture with its threat of indefinitely duplicated hours and days – the same dull work, the same dull pass-times – reduces human experience to less than that of other animals, since our experience derives from the human animal’s rationality, its insatiable desire to learn. Suppression and regression in the effort to think clearly denies us even that which is essential to our animal nature, since this nature – human nature – is rational in its teleology – in its capacity to construct its own teleology – and has only rational discovery as its telos. The fundamental difference between dogs and cats is this: to manifest anxiety cats arch their backs; yet, for the same expression, dogs lower their tails between their legs. Humans express anxiety in words, e.g.: “I worry”; and then seek and address the cause as a goal to accomplish [“I have done this and doing this I have meaning”]. There is nothing to fear in being a human, the fear lies in the possibility of not fully realizing our being human before we die.

So, we begin again. Do we begin looking in at “the thing”, as Hegel did? But why did he think he could do this? Aristotle started with logic. What is the use in that? Why bother with the structure if you have not the material with which to build?

Perhaps we should begin with us; we humans. Confucius began with the ‘just man.’ He only knew that real wisdom is found in how we really do relate to other human beings. But he misjudged how to get other humans to relate to us. As a civilized thinker he could not imagine that any human beings could desire anything other than civilized agency as an end, necessitating a civilization, which, by necessity, is a collective of decent civilized thinkers.

Some, unfortunately, prefer to arch their backs and lower their tails between their legs even though they have no tails. Such choice itself damns them to the pathetic recurrence of endless days of same-old same-old, as human beings who have denied their active lineage as developing intellects.

But accounting for these thus becomes the necessity of any new philosophy in an era of post-literacy and post-modernism; of squabbling celebrities pretending to be politicians and economists; of reduction of ideas to commodities, and reduction of life to recurrent banalities of media defined lives. And we thought we were human but perhaps we are not even dogs and cats.

So we begin again. Perhaps it is just this that makes us human. Cats and dogs never begin. They just are, and then – they are not. When they are, they are perfect cats and dogs. They just arch their backs and lower their tails. Humans have no perfection, exactly because, unlike cats and dogs, they have an inner intuition of perfection. This cannot be achieved, the effort always fails. Thus they must always begin, they always begin again.

But of this, enough; our task is now, at this time, to proceed, again; we rake the coals to light a fire.


2 thoughts on “Musings on beginning (again) in philosophy

  1. “Humans have no perfection, exactly because, unlike cats and dogs, they have an inner intuition of perfection.” Very nicely said!

    I think there is good reason not to try to earn your money with philosophy. The philosophers of antiquity did not have to, but only because they were rich people in a slaving society. Those who did (out of need or greed, I don’t know), like Protagoras, ended up with some kind of post-modern relativism that enabled them to sing the song of whoever’s bread they were eating.

    The thinkers of medieval times where not free at all because they were on the pay list of the church (or other powerful organizations).

    Others thinkers throut history tried to work as political consultants and this also restricted their freedom of thought.

    Today’s professional academic philosophers have some freedom of thought (depending on how free the underlying society is) but it is hard to get into that system and into one of the chairs standing around there. And then you have to publish in specialist journals for a specialist audience. If you are writing something everybody can understand, you run the risk of being dismissed as an “essayist” or “popular philosopher” in those circles.

    If you actually are a “popular philosopher”, writing books for a mass market, you have to restrict your thoughts to what sells.

    I think it is not the worst option to earn your money by something else and do philosophy privately. Blogging has opened a way for people doing this to publish their thoughts and get into contact with others.

    Confucius tried to get employment as a political consultant, at different courts of his time (with little success). As a great deal of Chinese philosophy is mainly political philosophy, dealing with the problem of how to rule, many Chinese thinkers also went this way of working as consultants (and some of them lost their hads or other parts of their bodies as a result).

    Others, however, decided against this. For example, tradition has it that Zhuangzi earned his livelihood as the overseer of a plantation of lacquer trees. In one of the “Outer chapters” of the writings ascribed to him, the beautiful “Floods of Autumn”, we read the following story (see, Nr. 11):

    Zhuangzi was (once) fishing in the river Pu, when the king of Chu sent two great officers to him, with the message, ‘I wish to trouble you with the charge of all within my territories.’ Zhuangzi kept on holding his rod without looking round, and said, ‘I have heard that in Chu there is a spirit-like tortoise-shell, the wearer of which died 3000 years ago, and which the king keeps, in his ancestral temple, in a hamper covered with a cloth. Was it better for the tortoise to die, and leave its shell to be thus honoured? Or would it have been better for it to live, and keep on dragging its tail through the mud?’ The two officers said, ‘It would have been better for it to live, and draw its tail after it over the mud.’ ‘Go your ways. I will keep on drawing my tail after me through the mud.’

    I agree.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s