Today I’m posting something a little different. This post is essentially a philosophy free write – I had an idea that I was trying to express to myself and so I just wrote down my train of thought. Its a bit longer then my usual post. The idea that I explore in it ( transitivity of philosophy) is central to my current understanding of the world. As always, I welcome comments and thank you for reading.
The Inevitable Transitivity of Philosophy
The philosopher who thinks that he writes the philosophy thinks foolishly. By this I don’t mean the philosopher who thinks he has written perfection – a philosopher can think that he has hit upon the reality of something without thinking he has expressed it perfectly.
But perhaps this is a foolish thing to say. For there are certainly fools who think that they know Truth, but they are seldom worth addressing. There are perhaps a few great philosophers who think they’ve penned reality, in which case I would argue that their work is great in spiteof their foolishness. But still, I have yet to say very much at all.
In a sense all philosophy comes down to epistemology (ethics?). I make this statement broadly – I do not in making it want to presuppose that there is, in fact, something waiting to be known (I do not want to alienate the existentialists or Nietzschian’s in the room). I am more trying to make the observation that what philosophers do is create/discover/examine ideas.
One area of philosophy that is particularly odd is the examination of the evolution of philosophy itself. Or maybe this is not properly speaking philosophy at all? For philosophy is about ideas.
There is a normative question lurking in examining the transition of ideas. Is there a right way (or are there better ways) to transition? The challenge is that our ideas about how it is better and worse to transition our ideas is itself an idea/ideas that spring from our understanding of the world.
Lets state what I take as one of the more certain realities of philosophy – no one will ever pen an end to the endeavor, philosophy is an eternal project. It has no beginning and no end. Particular philosophers may create ideas that will capture nations, perhaps the world, for decades, centuries. But the ideas will always cycle out. We also never really finish with old ideas either. Perhaps this is what distinguishes science from the humanities. Hard sciences don’t have much use for old ideas (it seems to me), while the humanities are always reaching back. Plato never goes out of style.
Since philosophy never “gets anywhere” it may seem odd to suggest that there is a normative way of doing it. Since there is no end to philosophy, to what end can we possibly aim in doing it well? It doesn’t matter how fast we run through eternity, after all.
Do philosophers even need help, in this regards? It would seem that the meaningless values that I praise are already stock among philosophers. Philosophers love critical thinking, reflection, continuous re-evaluation.
Then again, is the health of philosophy merely reflected in the health of philosophers? Or do I preach the attitude of philosophy itself, in some respect, as important to society?
Society can easily be framed in the same way that I have presented philosophy – an eternal project to nowhere. By eternal I don’t mean forever-lasting, just that as long as it lasts it remains a project, and it is not completed in ending but instead becomes a project abandoned.
To talk about how one should engage in philosophy is, I would argue, very similar (if not the same) project as talking about how one should engage in society. Or perhaps both are subordinate to another project that only completes in ending in the sense that it finishes, as opposed to being complete and done with, the project of living.
In a sense, I would say that the way we engage with philosophy is greater then how we engage with society, for philosophy embraces to itself the question of how we should live, of which society is merely a part.
Yet philosophy embraces other things, so is philosophy greater then the question of how we should live? I would say no… because all other projects and activities stem from our answer to the question – what should we do? To study metaphysics is to answer the question – what I should do right now is study the nature of reality.
Everything is activity to us, and so the question of how we should act is omnipresent. The question disappears with our death, but it can hardly be said that we have answered it by dying. Every living moment is the question posed in a different way, and our action is our answer. Somehow philosophy has taken this overbearing question and made it a subordinate element of its own study. Yet underlying all philosophical study is an answer to the question. Of course, the study of ethics is itself an answer to the question – what I should do is study what I should do.
The challenge with asking ‘what should I do’, is that it is always asked in an understood context. Our ‘context’ defines our answer, in a sense. This comes down to an issue of freedom. I would say that we do not have free will (at least not our intuitive idea of it). I think I can defend this assertion well, but at the same time it remains a piece of context – a piece that thrusts the evaluation of our context to a position of prominent importance because it means that our context defines our action (because, in a sense, each moment is a question, the question being our context, and our action is our answer). To assert the importance of studying ethics comes from my particular context (no value judgement nor relativistic claim, just an observation). Someone who is a religious fundamentalist may likely not feel the same impulse, because they do not believe in the transition of the question ‘what should we do?’ but instead take the answer to be before them, and the task at hand is not to examine it but to spread the word. But then, this is the attitude which I have previously scorned as non-philosophical (though there are dogmatists who claim the name philosopher).
My goal is to give a normative account of how we should transition between philosophies, my challenge is that any proposal I make is itself going to be riddled with philosophical assertions. The spirit of the idea I am trying to get at is a simple one, and as I said previously, I believe it is a spirit already embraced by many philosophers. I am trying to express that beliefs are temporary, transitive – not necessarily within ourselves but relative to the great march of human history. I am trying to express the futility and the foolishness of dogmatism. I do not, however, want to make people give up hope, I do not want them to stop creating ideas. What I want is for ideas to be held gently. I want to embrace belief development as a process, and I want to claim that there are better and worse ways to engage in this process. The better way is to recognize it as a process.
But this may be to the determinant of the cause which people try to embrace?
But it is not the cause that should be the focus, not the belief but the believer.
I must take some fundamental stances to make this claim.
These arguments themselves I take to be transitional – though I do not expect to ever find myself dragged from the spirit of this philosophy, I am ready and willing to abandon all of its particulars (or at least I will try to be).
But where does the spirit come from? I would be surprised if other philosophers (as I have labelled philosophers) do not sometimes fear they are but another kind of dogmatist who tries to pompously reject the name – our dogmatism being an embracement of the value of thinking and reflection, of uncertainty.
For as much as I’m tempted, I think that I risk just such a dogmatism if I argue that this spirit results in goodness of any kind. The human animal responds unpredictably – it is possible that any concrete value that I espouse is better served by dogmatism.
But perhaps I can give a different account of the difference between the two. One makes the human life a project, a free project, as much as such is possible. This does not free it to be better, but it makes it less arbitrary. For any particular value you can espouse, dogmatism may serve it better – but the service of dogmatism is random. You save your energy if you don’t check your bearings, but you only end up ahead if your ship was somehow already pointed in the right direction.
That is an analogy that obviously works in my favour – the philosopher is all for steering, the dogmatist is a runaway freight train.
So we come back somewhat to the purpose of this project. Who am I writing for? What am I writing for? It is trite to say that I write for the betterment of humankind, though I am firmly convinced that the philosophy way is better, I cannot prove it actually improves the human lot in life (partially because I do not want to commit to any particular way that it improves life – I do not want to say that it will make people happier, for example.)
Am I writing for the philosopher? Yes, at least at first. First I want to make sure my words are words of substance, and second I want them to be understandable. The philosophers are the gatekeepers. But in a sense my words are not for philosophers, so much as judged by them. It has never been proven that philosophy should be written forphilosophers, only that philosophers are the only ones who can bear reading it.
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