It seems that a national telecoms company has a deeper fear of modren technology than I had anticipated. Nevertheless, with the help of ageing rebel, Skin-the-Cat, and a consignment of Bloom’s Day bloomers bound once again for Montserrat, I am transported back to the 21st century, temporarily at least.
How strange everything seems nowadays. Where, I wonder, are the rocket boots and silver-foil clothing we were all promised as children? The future leaves a lot to desired, I must say. Even, or especially, at the present.
Prior to that seasonally psychic breakdown a week or so ago, we were, if you recall, talking about the purpose and point of philosophy; the difficulty being that it doesn’t appear to have one. With financial pressure being applied to the throat of educational institutions everywhere, this may well be A Bad Thing. Worse than that, would society or civilisation survive the death of philosophy? Doesn’t it need reflective minds?
One response would be to point out that to think morally, in whatever arena, just is to think philosophically, perhaps even metaphysically. Consequently, it is something to which considerable time and energy ought to be dedicated. The serious study of moral thinking ought, in fact, to be at the very centre of all healthy education systems. And from it, all – or nearly all – other philosophical problems grow.
It is a very short stretch of the intellectual legs from here to ancient Greece where, for us in the West, the whole thing began. Plato’s famous observation, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living,’ springs immediately to mind; likewise the Delphic dictum, Gnothi Seauton (the English translation of which is, of course, the title of Tom Buford’s most recent book).
A curious thought: we heard these sayings at the beginning of our philosophical adventures; why, I wonder, were we so quick to forget them? Why, that is, are philosophers in general so little concerned with this most valuable element of our literary and intellectual heritage? Is it, perhaps, a consequence of the ‘analytic turn’, almost the antithesis of self-knowledge? Or is it the wider rationalist tradition, which hardly encourages self-awareness?
As the Greeks knew fine well, the deepest and most important questions in philosophy are not the abstruse ruminations of obtuse ruminants; they concern the kind of life one lives and the kind of person one becomes as a result. Passing this through Feuerbachian hands, philosophy becomes therapeutic; theology all the more so, especially when transformed into what Feuerbach himself described as ‘therapeutic atheism’ and Charles Conti, ‘developmental theology’. Its purpose is, perhaps, to illuminate the oppressive darkness of a child’s education in faith. (It does not matter now, whether we say ‘philosophy’ or ‘theology’ since neither can be done properly without the other.) That violent absolutism of the nursery, for example, a ‘theism’ which the likes of Peter Byrne still confess. Worse is the solidus-self, divided from itself and the Other by self-certainties of sin and eternal damnation, preached in the name of the Heart of the World. For some, so I’m told, it was a thunderous roar: hell-fire and brimstone, clenched fists and foaming lips. For others it was a sinuous whisper, all the more sinister because of it’s gently threatening proximity: breathed on the back of an agonisingly grey and guilty neck.
(God is love, but never forget He is a jealous God. This, presumably, is why hairy-handed intimacy with someone who, as Woody Allen famously observed, one really loves inevitably leads the dexterous down a sinister or left-hand path to a very different “down below”.)
The purpose, at least one purpose, of philosophy, then, is to drive the self to emancipate itself from the subjugation of self-certainties and aggressive ‘apriorisms’, to teach the self to accept the natural fragmentation of a healthy psychology so make way for ‘supernatural’, that is, providential, participation in its development.
Emancipation, not desertion. That is, re-appropriation: the dialectical reclamation of redemptive images; images of otherness, of reciprocity, of creative engagement through which consciousness must pass itself if it is to return to itself, or rather, to the Spirit from whence it came. In returning, consciousness may reassemble the fragments of, if not actually innocence (we should not overstretch credibility, even here), then at least something very like Gnothi-knowledge and Seauton-acceptance. So emancipation may become enfranchisement as consciousness learns to have a little faith in the thirty thousand fathoms over which it inevitably finds itself suspended.
Or, if metaphysically inclined mysticism is not to your taste, perhaps we could try the same thing in something like a Wittgensteinian mood. (Would that, I wonder, be any less mystical? Probably not, if Charles Conti is to be believed.) Wittgenstein too, we are told, talked of philosophy as therapy. By clarifying the ways in which language constructively works, we might do likewise with our thinking.
Thinking about what? Why, about what we are and what that means, what else? Take a simple example (actually borrowed from the vastly more readable Friedrich Waismann): the open-ended-ness and open-texture of our descriptions. For anyone unfamiliar with Waismann, his point was simply that no description can ever be full, final, or complete. It may be so, more or less, for whatever purpose we have in mind when employing it, but it is always possible that a great deal more waits to be added. On the one hand, this is due to constraints of time: sooner or later we have to abandon our conceptual refinements and put our constructs to work. On the other, it is because no description can be made logically watertight; proof, that is, against the possibility of vagueness. Whatever purpose we have in mind for our description, it is unlikely to be the only one. Descriptions do many jobs and so require many further and other refinements, presently unimagined.
To realise this is to guard against futile attempts to translate all our statements, including those about people, into sense-datum statements (as Waismann showed). It also avoids the temptation – to which I once saw the late great Maggie Boden succumb – to bumptiously assert that, one day, we shall have a complete description of the universe in purely physical terms. Such a description would, of course, include consciousness or personality. Or, rather, it would rule them out altogether.
The moral and spiritual implications of that are well-known; they are as obvious as they are worrying. Of course, the possibility of reducing people to things is not merely the preserve of that other metaphysical plaything beloved by unreflective minds, scientism or materialism. It is also a central feature of the more virulent political ideologies. Understand the purposeful, that is, personal, nature of all description and we might just resist the temptation to classify, to define, one another in purely political and/or economic terms.
The last century and a half has shown, quite amply one would imagine, that such definitions are quite definitely A Bad Thing.
Despite the evidence, however, it is still something that many people, not least public servants, continue to do. Student or patient, you are mostly likely down on the books as a customer, a consumer of goods and services, all of which, naturally, have their price. As, just as naturally, do we. That said, I have noticed that politicians do not yet, as a rule, refer to either their constituents or the electorate in general as ‘customers’. Perhaps they daren’t. What ever would they do if we demanded our money’s worth? Or perhaps they are aware, however dimly, that in so doing they would diminish themselves as well as us. They would, one imagines, rather think of themselves as statesmen than as swineherds, however fantastic and absurd the thought may be.
The point, in any case, remains. Here, too, philosophy offers a kind emancipation, driving us to think and talk about how we think and talk about ourselves and one another. And, whether the ideologies are metaphysical, scientistic or political, the yield is the same: freedom from the child’s tendency to objectify ourselves and those others. Such objectifications may, as Piaget suggested, be a crucial stage of early psychological development. Sooner or later, however, the time comes to put away childish things.
In the end, then, perhaps the purpose of philosophy may simply be to keep us on the road to adulthood.
Let us leave aside any question of gender and progress along that road. Any woman who ever knew a man knows the answer and any man who ever had a mother knows well what she would say. Our point stands, philosophy, when done thoughtfully and with an eye for the reality of our total situation – in other words, when done properly – is there to help us grow and become ourselves, who we might be. In which case, our personalist philosophy certainly is well suited to the task.