Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why is philosophy, again?

When I read this self-assesment--
my motivations for engaging in philosophy and theology [are] almost entirely negative: a view sounds wrong, or it makes no sense, or it’s boring, or I’m simply tired of hearing it so often, etc., etc.... I suspect I’m part of a significant majority
--my first (unbecoming) response was to shake my head sagely and mutter something like, "Alas, yes."

For once, I managed to not comment in that mode. I don't really like myself when I give in to striking the curmudgeon pose; you know the one: "Yep, damn right so-called philosophers these days are just a bunch of infighting one-up-mansshippers. Used to be they cared about Truth." In my defense, I had just been reading this post by Arturo Vasquez, which leads off with a long quote from neglected Catholic philosopher Charles de Koninck:
The attitude of philosophers towards their readers has completely changed. It is no longer the truth they speak, but more rather the reader and the writer who become the principal object of their preoccupation.... What is still more important is that the reader for whom they write is no longer the philosopher, but rather that vague individual called the man of good sense on some occasions, the cultivated man on others, and the general reader on others. Compare that procedure with that of Aristotle or of St. Thomas. The Discourse on Method is essentially a rhetorical work. It was also one of the first appeals to unformed man precisely as he is unformed, an appeal which will some day shine forth in the appeal to the unformed masses insofar as they are unformed.

Philosophical works take on a form which makes them more and more unrefutable according to right thinking. They are rooted in attitudes. Philosophy becomes more and more the expression of the personality of philosophers.

On Vasquez' blog, I commented in part:
I too am ambivalent about what can be critiqued as the “elitism” in the passage. I am attracted to the conclusion that Cartesianism is symptomatic of a strong shift in the conception of what philosophy is, and I do see this shift in terms close to those de Koninck uses. On the other hand, I second-guess this sympathy of mine. Might it not just be my own elitist aspirations, lusting to identify with the master-discourse? And then the pendulum swings back: For heaven’s sake, man! (I say to myself), Have the courage of your convictions! Are you just going to kow-tow to the prejudices of the age?! But when I slow down a bit and take a breath, I reflect that this very internal dialogue with all its back-&-forth bears a certain resemblance (in a [post]modern key, no doubt) to, say, Socrates’ self-scrutiny.
Now I think there's quite a lot in all of the stations through which that pendulum swings, and anyone who would follow the advice to know oneself had better take a good while at each. Like Leo Strauss, like Isaiah Berlin, like John Millbank, de Koninck points out a difference between the ancients and the moderns. I won't bother to argue the plausibility of this description, since the existence of some fault-slip between the ages at or about the time is after all why we call this age "modern", and was expressly acknowledged even at the time.

But there is a danger in identifying too strongly with the ancients, with those who (says de Koninck), cared for truth rather than persuasion, and addressed themselves to fellow initiates. We cast the whole rest of the world in the role of the sophist, the chatterer, the bullshitter, or at the very least, the parrots of today's consensus. At the same stroke, of course, one casts oneself as a member of the elite inner circle of those who know; and anyone who has spent a day in serious self-scrutiny knows to suspect their own motives in an us/them maneuver like this.

But this self-scrutiny fails if it just undermines one's own intuitions. Socratic attention is always first and foremost to one's own soul, but one mark of clarity of soul is to not be confused about the validity of questions. Even a bad motive for asking a question ("You ask that because you want to see yourself as a member of the inner circle of initiates"), does not render the question moot.

If one can conclude something like, "post-cartesian thought still aimed at truth, just a truth accessible to a broader group that had no need of specialized vocabulary," then one has modified one's original claim (only the ancients aimed at truth, the moderns aimed at persuasion), but managed to keep hold of the value one assigns to truth, and of the sense that there is a significant difference in style in the moderns. So far so good. But one can still ask: Yes, but in what way does this new, modern conception of truth bear comparison to the old one?

This is at least one question the Socratic approach would ask; something like, "We said, did we not, that Truth was [X]? But now we are saying that Truth is [Y]. Can it be both?"

In a later comment, Adam Kotsko wrote:
In the case of wonder, you get an intuition that there’s something higher or better. In annoyance, you get an intuition that your current state of affairs isn’t as good as it could be. How is this not just two sides of the same coin?
My guess is that Socrates often got annoyed with himself for just the sort of reasons Adam lists in his initial post; and he certainly goes after his interlocutors who don't seem to notice that their views are either repugnant to reason, or decency, or both. But I notice that Plato almost always goes to lengths to depict Socrates as remaining unflappable, no matter how intractable the difficulties get (to say nothing of, say, being condemned to death), whereas his opponents get, well, annoyed. I am of course aware that we don't have to take Plato's programme for our own, let alone take his word for an accurate portrait of Socratic practice. Also, I note that it is Aristotle, not Plato, who calls wonder the beginning of philosophy (Plato is more about eros).

My own tentative stopping-place (for now) is: wonder trumps annoyance, and is the way that annoyance is transmuted into philosophical insight, rather than remaining at the level of merely loquacious tit-for-tat.


  1. As far as I can figure out, and my figuring here is a little unsure, wonder in Greek, θάμβος, comes from the root (σ)ταφ, staf, from which we get stiff and stipe, which is a sort of stalk, and maybe in a round about way, stupid. The imagination goes wild imagining all that can come with that.

  2. I couldn't wrap my head around the annoyance thesis. Perhaps geniuses consistently get annoyed but too routinely I encounter some new thinker or thought that literally blows my mind.
    - David CLD

  3. I certainly can relate to being annoyed, and I see (I presume) what Adam means by saying he's spurred to write by his annoyance. I think I want to say that there's a category mistake in conflating the occasions of philosophizing with the uprising of the philosophical stance in the world. But to be clear, A.K. is pretty explicit that he's talking about the former. And I could be convinced that it isn't so easy to distinguish these anyway.

    I wish I could say that I'm regularly mind-blown by a new thinker, but it is pretty rare. I am frequently impressed, however, and even when I am gadfly'd into being reactive in the "but that can't be right!" mode, it's usually by something that strikes me as worth refuting-- i.e., interesting enough to be wrong and not just BS.