Philosophy is Not Fiction

I’ve met a number of intelligent people who think philosophy is always something historically bound and socially constructed and nothing more. They’ll say that philosophy is always really a theology, or always myth, bound to its historical origin and expressive of its originating circumstances and possessing no real claim to universality except what it can win for itself through conquest or propaganda. This view is actually not rare among conservative religious people, as surprising as that should seem.

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The goal seems to be to pull reason down from its lofty, universalizing pretensions, and to show that we can never escape our particularity. Affirming our particularity is of course a valuable thing, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of philosophy’s rightful domain of evaluating the timeless, transhistorical questions.

Now, I’m not saying that religion or mythology are themselves always fictional, or that they don’t have a claim to universal validity (although a false religion could hardly claim to be more than a pleasant or useful fiction). What I am saying is that in my view, if everything is just competing religions, then there is no access to truth. In that case, all belief becomes fideistic and unable to appeal to any justification above itself or outside itself, which means that all belief becomes arbitrary. Historically, philosophy has been seen as something different. Its unique domain allows it, at its best, to look at particular claims and compare them impartially, and evaluate them.

Why, then, would anybody want to believe that philosophy should be treated as just another historical ideological sort of force, on a level field competing with countless other such forces?

I think there are a couple possible reasons, based on my experience. As we might fairly expect, they’re not all that philosophical.

For one thing, philosophy is exceedingly difficult to engage with well on its own terms, but is easily laid low when held to standards that are alien to it. We can defeat philosophy by this means, anytime we like, though our victory will always be meaningless. This victory will be a constant temptation for those who don’t have sufficient philosophical training to engage fairmindedly with the philosophical tradition (even though many will mistakenly feel that they have more than enough philosophical training to rest comfortably in their conclusions). It’s an easy view to slip into, because most audience members or conversation partners will likewise be lacking in such training, especially in our day, and unable to correct it.

I don’t mean to be rude or to “win” by being uncharitable here. I would say that most of us who study the philosophical tradition have an inadequate grasp of it. It takes years, or really decades, to begin to have a comprehensive sense of the alternatives and arguments that are available there in all their richness, and I suspect that many of us who make it our life’s work will still reach the end of our lives not having succeeded as well as we hoped to.

Those who have chosen to belittle philosophy show themselves to have two extra handicaps when it comes to understanding philosophy: They have made a decision to interpret philosophy in a way that is explicitly contrary to philosophy’s historic self-presentation, and they have showed how little motivation there is for them to do the arduous work of understanding philosophy. This is not unkind to say, I think, but only realistic and fair.

Furthermore, another reason why we may want to think that all philosophy is basically just religion dressed up is that then we religious people can feel good about ourselves and don’t need to be defensive before the tribunal of philosophical reason. This feels like it makes for a fairer fight against irreligious people. “You say my beliefs are based on faith, yeah, well, turns out yours are too!”

This mistaken effort treats philosophy as if it is somehow interchangeable with atheism or irreligiosity. The idea that there could be a realm of knowledge not determined by some kind of faith from the ground up is threatening, in that light. It means that the atheists might be right when they say religion is unnecessary! If we can get rid of that dangerous epistemological space called philosophy, then unavoidably the religious people will be right and the irreligious wrong, and so of course that’s attractive to some to be able to affirm.

However, I actually think this motivation fails to appreciate a legitimate intermediate position that can be held — that there is something outside of faith to which we can appeal, and also that the great majority of irreligious people hold their beliefs for reasons that have more to do with faith and tradition and prejudice than with anything resembling rationality. We could entertain that possibility without having to reject philosophy’s autonomy before we ever begin. It is entirely possible to hold that philosophy is something other than a religious tradition, and at the same time also to insist that philosophy, properly understood, affirms the best arguments for God and the need for religion. Indeed, this is precisely what the great majority of important theologians and philosophers through history have taught.

I think there’s also sometimes an aesthetic consideration motivating this view of philosophy. Some people are just attracted to the vision of a world full of visions, of a world filled with competing faiths where everything that’s not a faith is really just faith in disguise — faith acting in bad faith, perhaps. And I have to admit, I do feel the attraction myself as well, though in the end I reject it.

And lastly, it may also be that people are misled by an obvious fact that can be twisted to an unreasonable conclusion. The truth is, every philosopher is indeed historically bound, speaking in a particular language and responding to a particular historical situation. Now, it would of course be very clearly a fallacy to try and say that this means the philosopher has, for this reason, no access to transhistorical truth … but that won’t stop people from trying.

There are two major and obvious problems with this whole approach to philosophy.

First, we have to ask from what vantage point it is possible to make such an absolute and universal pronouncement about the nature of philosophy. The pronouncement purports to be something quasi-philosophical, but of course it cannot be a philosophical position, or it would straightaway invalidate itself. So then it must be something held by faith. And if there are people who claim that fideism is everything simply because they believe very strongly that it is, then I suppose all we can really do is point out the circular nature of their conclusions and, if they do not see a problem, leave them to it.

Secondly, if it is true that all philosophical thought is ultimately only religious doctrine in disguise, then there is no way to judge between differing viewpoints.

I believe that in one sense we cannot escape our particularity. The material circumstances of our lifetime will always characterize our thoughts and speech in ways that are inescapable.

In another sense, though, we certainly can escape our particularity, through our particularity. It makes me think of Thomas Aquinas’s account of knowing, in which every particular leads us to the universal, so that every particular triangle, for instance, opens up for us the universality of triangularity. For St Thomas, we can never fully leave behind our particularity, since we cannot relate to the universal apart from particulars, but at the same time particularity cannot ever be the whole for a human. Particularity is always accompanied by universality, because of what it means for us to be human, and that is itself what makes philosophy possible.

The Natural Sciences, Neither Rulers Nor Marionettes

There are two big mistakes we can make when beginning to think about science. We need to try to avoid, not one error or the other — we need to avoid both.

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For one thing, the natural sciences aren’t solitary and supreme. We shouldn’t see them as the only source of knowledge, and we furthermore shouldn’t treat them as unquestionable, or authoritative in every area, or able to give a full answer to every question. Science has limitations, which many seem either not to know about, or not to care about.

But at the same time, the natural sciences are not merely Rorschach blots. They aren’t fictions, or postmodern artwork onto which any sort of interpretation can legitimately be projected. They do give us a kind of knowledge, which is not available otherwise, and which it is sheer folly to deny or ignore.

The natural sciences might not give us the whole truth, but at the same time that doesn’t mean they are completely devoid of truth either.

The natural sciences do develop within a social context with social pressures and idiosyncratic characters and biases and mixed motives. That is true of every area of study, though.

We shouldn’t bow down and worship the sciences or scientists. The materialist or atheist who claims not to believe anything that isn’t proven by natural science lives in a small and strange world. Science doesn’t tell us everything, and doesn’t (cannot) claim to.

It is also the height of stupidity to assume that a contempt for science gives us greater insight into the natural world than is available to natural sciences.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the predictions about climate change aren’t quite right, but I’m no expert.” That might be okay. “Those scientists don’t know what they’re talking about! The climate isn’t changing! I mean come on. I’m not a climate scientist but even I know there’s powerful, obvious evidence that they’re completely wrong which is just being ignored or suppressed by the entire scientific community except for a few crackpots who are probably the next Einstein, since they happen to agree with what I wish were the truth.” That is not so okay. That sort of thing is generally the sign of an uneducated mind.

Let’s just aim to give science its proper place.

Finite Daily Brainpower

When we realize that we have a finite daily amount of brainpower to expend on the things we care about, when we truly realize that, it’s life-changing.

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I think about the first time I tried to learn Latin. I figured I would just sit down and start memorizing. I was very motivated, I thought, and would do however much it took. And then I would know Latin! How impressive would it be if I could make great strides in the language, over the course of only a few weeks? Someday they’ll make a biographical movie of my life and they’ll play something like the Rocky theme song at this part of the story!

After an hour and a half of brutally hard work that day, during which I learned very little, I gave up for the day, and the next day couldn’t bring myself to repeat the experience. A week later I got up the courage to try the same thing again, with the same results. Before long, I wasn’t even trying to fool myself into thinking that I was still attempting it.

That’s how college classes tend to go as well, at least for the majority of us. We start out with good intentions, doing all the assigned readings, the little assignments, and thinking ahead about some of the bigger projects. And then all of a sudden, a big assignment is due. It snuck up. We exhaust ourselves over a couple days getting it done, and we’ve fallen behind on the other, smaller daily tasks. And we don’t have the energy to get caught up on them right away, and soon enough we notice that nothing bad really seems to have happened since we stopped doing the regular readings. After that, we’re leapfrogging from big assignment to big assignment, long stretches of laziness punctuated by frantic bursts of intellectual effort.

That’s exactly the wrong way to learn. Whether we’re attempting that path because we’re inspired (as I was with Latin) or because we feel trapped into it (college classes), the whole approach undermines the long-term and masterful study of a subject.

The problem is just that we only have so much brainpower in a day, especially for a single task. Introducing some variety can help extend our daily limitations somewhat, but even then there’s only so much our brains can do in a day.

Pushing behind that daily limit, even only a small number of times, sets us into a counterproductive headspace. It makes us stressed, reluctant, resistant, tired, frustrated, distractible, lazy.

The smart way to learn, then, is to make a habit of doing a small amount every day. Never exceed that finite capacity.

Spend five, ten, fifteen minutes on a project, every single day. It will never feel burdensome or stressful, and progress will happen with surprising speed. Maybe learning a new skill will take a year or two at that rate, which might sound slow, but just think how much progress will be made over the course of a decade. Certainly I would know a lot more about Latin now if that’s how I had started out ten years ago.

So the next time you’re feeling inspired to learn something new, don’t be persuaded that motivation or willpower can overpower the brain’s natural limitations. That’s the way of folly. Instead, channel that inspiration into forming a new, small, repetitive habit.

The results might be astonishing.

Greek and German

Heidegger says somewhere that the two most philosophical languages in the West are classical Greek and modern German. I think he believed there was something special about the history or the structure of the languages themselves that lent itself particularly well to philosophical work; I’m not so sure whether that’s true, although I’m more open to it now since realizing something about myself.

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The two philosophical literatures that I am most excited to be able to read in the original languages are the Greek and the German; the Greek especially up to the end of the end of the so-called Neoplatonic Academy in the sixth century, and German basically from Kant forward.

I originally wasn’t that excited at all about beginning to study German, or about the sort of things I’d be able to read. I had to cast about, helplessly trying to think of something, anything that I might enjoy reading in German, in order to motivate myself to stick with the language.

Somehow, though, in the course of studying the language I’ve realized how much is written in that language that I want to have access to. Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and many more.

Now of course in the West, bridging from the end of the Greek to the early German philosophical traditions I’ve specified, there was Latin scholasticism. With my background, it might seem like I would be excited to read this part of philosophical history most of all! And indeed, it is very high on my list. Still, it does come in below Greek and German.

I don’t know if I can fully justify that. Certainly I wouldn’t get into an argument with someone if they were more excited to study the medieval scholastics than the ancient Greeks or the modern Germans. I would sympathize, and celebrate it!

And I would understand if someone said I was giving regrettably short shrift to great philosophical works produced in English or Italian or French.

I’m excited for those languages and literatures as well, and a year ago I might not have been able to arrange them into a hierarchy to represent which ones really seem most enticing to me. But after a lot of reflection, I’m getting closer to finding out what I see the most value in.

So then, that’s what it comes down to for me. I’m most excited for Greek, and second most for German. Those two are at the top by a good margin. And I feel that way because of my desire to study philosophy. So maybe old Heidegger was right about this one after all.

Philosophy for Truth

There’s a fear that philosophy is going to lead us away from the truths that we already know.

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It’s a reasonable fear. The philosophical path begins by questioning many things, including many good things that will turn out to be true. The very act of questioning such things can have destructive consequences. The person who asks the questions won’t always have the capacity to follow those questions through to their best answers, or else by the time good answers are secured it may already be too late to undo some of the social damage our questioning may have caused.

What if a young woman, interested in philosophy, were to turn away from the religious faith of her family, ending up an atheist? What if a young man, interested in philosophy, were to turn away from the respectable progressivism he’d been raised in to embrace a far-right extremism? I’m not saying either of these are necessary conclusions of the philosophical journey, but they certainly are possible outcomes, and perhaps not uncommon today, and probably fairly undesirable, at least from the standpoint of the original community.

We might want to reject philosophy then, in favour of what we’ve always believed to be true, in favour of what a given community accepts as truth.

But to some degree, the questioning will happen anyways. Some people, certain young people especially, I think, have a seemingly natural inclination to question. Especially in today’s world, but even more generally, we might just have to accept that those who want to ask questions are going to ask them. So the questioning will come, and it might as well be at least somewhat directed by people who have thought these same sorts of things through before.

While the risk is that philosophy might lead us to falsehood in the process of learning to think, the eventual advantage is that later, the study of philosophy can itself be a safeguard against falsehood, and might in the end be the only real safeguard against misleading arguments.

The study of philosophy is necessary in order to be able to defend the truth from those who argue for falsehoods, because philosophy is what enables us to search for truth, wherever it might be found, despite any internal or external resistance to the truth, and also because it is what enables us to recognize and explain the faults that occur in erroneous argumentation. Philosophy is necessary, but perhaps not sufficient by itself, for the fight against destructive teachings and falsehood. In this way, philosophy is an ally in the safeguarding of the truth, not an enemy.

And if it comes out, in the process of studying philosophy, that some of the unexamined beliefs that we previous thought were true are actually themselves false, aren’t we better off having the opportunity to find out? It might be frightening, but it is worth the pain of giving up a part of our inherited opinion, in order to draw closer to the truth that is worth knowing and defending.

Neoplatonism for Dummies

I don’t consider myself actually knowledgeable enough to explain Neoplatonism itself very well, but I probably talk about it often enough that I ought to try explaining at least what I mean by it. If a more knowledgeable reader needs to set me straight on any of what I’ve written, please feel free!

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I like to proceed like Ficino did, by outlining some of the different sorts of things we encounter in the thought of Neoplatonism. The summary below won’t be exhaustive in that respect, but it gives us the basic idea, I think.

The physical world exists. Most people today will agree with that, and so do the Neoplatonists. They affirm the corporeal realm around us. It exists. But, as they remind us, it’s not everything. It can’t explain consciousness.

Consciousness exists too, undeniably, and it’s not quite the same as the world around it.

But consciousness and corporeality can’t be everything either. The mind, you see, perceives not just trees and stars and fields, but also the invisible commonalities between them, the treeness and starness and fieldness that allow us meaningfully to group things into kinds. Those unseen unifiers are outside time and outside space, unlike their instantiations, undecaying and unaffected. This is the domain inhabited by such things as the truths of mathematics.

So then we have the world of bodies around us, the presence of consciousness within us, the realm of universal, unchanging truth above us. But that’s still not quite all. None of this will seem completely unfamiliar to the thinking of contemporary philosophy. But the Neoplatonists do take one step further and ask what is above the realm of timeless truth. What is first?

Today we might venture to suggest that it could be God, and then trot out our prefabricated definitions about what this God must be like. Could this thing possibly be what’s first?, we would then ask.

The Neoplatonists don’t do that. Not quite. They begin by trying to find that highest, greatest origin of all things, and ask what it would have to be, and then, afterwards, they see if it can be suitably called divinity. (Spoiler: they find that nothing could more suitably receive that name.)

It is the One, the indivisible unity behind all other unities — the purest simplicity. Neoplatonists realized that anything other than perfect unity could not be the origin of everything else, since it would be made up of parts (even if its only multiplicity were in the form of metaphysical composition, eg as actuality and potentiality), and those parts would be more basic than their whole, in one respect, and thus prior in the order of reality.

So the first thing must be absolutely simple, and it must be, indeed, Simplicity itself. If it were simple without being Simplicity, then it would be an instantiation of a prior universal which would itself be first.

So then it is Simplicity, pure Unity, that is first, is alone.

Everything else in reality pours forth from the metaphysical abundance and fecundity of the One. How do we know? We know because the One is not the only thing, and because everything that exists participates in the One (ie, everything that exists is itself one).

And Neoplatonism claims, of course, that Plato understood at least something of this, if not all of it, and that the metaphysical reflections and questions that arise in the dialogues have their place and their answers within precisely this account of reality.

I think Neoplatonism offers assistance in a lot of the metaphysical and epistemological difficulties that beset philosophy today. I don’t mean to say that it can be conclusively proven true; maybe it can be, but that’s beyond my mind to know. For me though, to treat Neoplatonism as the default starting point (rather than, say, materialism) seems at the very least to be greatly advantageous for the student of philosophy.

The Great Courses (Teaching Company)

After I graduated college, I began studying philosophy in earnest. I read through large quantities of old philosophical books in translation, and I enjoyed it immensely and learned a great deal.

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At that time, I used to say that if I could go back and start college over again to maximize my learning, I would focus my studies on languages and history. I was finding from experience after college that while I could get as much or more from studying ideas independently as I could studying them in a classroom, independent study of languages or historical facts was not nearly as effective on my own.

For learning historical dates and names and places and events etc, and for learning vocabulary and grammatical tables etc, there’s nothing like a classroom to provide motivation: a grade that will remain attached to us for life, a test that cannot be deferred forever, a supportive community of peers to study with and suffer alongside.

I still think there are great advantages for studying those two subject areas in college, but I’m now less hopeless about the possibility of studying them independently. I’ve already said a fair bit about language learning previously.

For the study of history, my best recommendation is The Great Courses.

This product is really unbelievable.

For the price of a single credit on Audible, I can buy a course that has twelve or even twenty-four hours’ worth of lectures. The lectures are done by a world-class teacher and scholar on a particular subject, and I can listen to them as many times as I want. And if I want, there’s even an included course PDF covering all the same material for no extra charge.

That means I get a huge amount of material, for less than twenty dollars, delivered by a world-class expert. It’s hard not to compare this to what we could get at a college or university — hundreds of dollars for a probably mediocre prof, who has the power to make your life truly miserable on a whim.

I’m not saying college is a waste of money, only that if there’s anything worthwhile in college classes, how much more must the Great Courses be worth our time and money!

It’s interesting that in every course, each lecture is about thirty minutes long. I don’t think I’ve ever had a college class that consisted of thirty-minute lectures. Still, the format seems to work very well. I can’t explain it, but I do enjoy it.

And I recommend the history courses most highly of all. There are lots of good courses available, but in my experience, the best value and best entertainment come from the history courses. Give one a try. Whatever catches your interest. See if you aren’t hooked.

Here’s a little tip, by the way: when you’re ready, try buying two (or more) courses that cover the same or similar material, done by different professors, and listen to one of them, then listen to the other, and then go back and relisten to the first and then go back to the other. Bounce back and forth a couple times. This has a few advantages. For one thing, it gives you two different perspectives, and then any differing emphases or interpretations or conclusions will be very illuminating. It also makes it more interesting to relisten to the first course; most of the good courses will be worth enjoying multiple times, but it can be tedious to do the one thing over and over again with nothing to compare against. It also gives a subtle confidence when we hear two world-class experts, who do not agree on everything, give a similar analysis of a given question. Where they overlap, we will feel that we are on firm ground indeed.

The Humility of Wise and Fools

Thanks to a few unfortunate conversations I’ve been forced to engage in recently, I’ve had to think a bit about what it means to be a fool (and not the good kind).

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It seems to me that while people are often culpable for their foolish beliefs, at the same time no one consciously chooses to be a fool. Virtually no people who sincerely believe foolish things will see their beliefs as foolish. Indeed, their guilt consists precisely in being able to convince themselves that what they want to believe is not a thing that only fools could accept.

Through reflecting on this situation, I’ve come to suspect that there are two kinds of intellectual humility, one appropriate for fools and one for the wise.

The humility of fools is the humility of those who don’t know if they’re right. We should all begin with this sort of humility. Because both fools and the wise will be convinced that their conclusions are not foolish, we all need to begin with the recognition that no matter how strongly we feel we’re right, we may very well be wrong.

The wise always begin with this awareness, but fools rarely do. Still, I call it the humility of fools because it is a humility especially suited to fools, a humility that ennobles the fool who could otherwise never rise above folly. Humble fools may not be able to arrive at truth, but they will at least not be entirely closed off to truth, and will besides wear their folly in a way that is not shameful but endearing and respectable.

The humility of the wise, on the other hand, is the humility of the person who has seen the errors of the foolish and has also recognized the futility of trying to enlighten them in their stubbornness. In other words, this is the special humility which is elicited in the wise when a fool lacks the humility that is suitable in folly. Sadly, this will be a common situation for the wise; arrogant fools are far more numerous than are appropriately humble fools, at least in my experience. Perhaps this is especially true in democratic society.

(I should clarify, by the way, that I don’t write this as if I am the universally wise person who has completely transcended all foolishness. These insights should all in principle be available to anyone who has at some time known more on a subject than an opinionated conversation partner.)

The humility of the wise, I think, must take the form of hiding within ironies. It is most pleasant and generally most useful to cut off discussions with an arrogant fool as quickly as possible, but frequently this is not a realistic possibility.

When a wise person must continue a conversation with arrogant fools, wisdom will not endlessly answer them as if they were wise enough to see their mistakes and correct themselves. That is a fruitless endeavour that will dishonour the wise, except in rare situations such as structured, public debates.

Instead of entering into the fray with a proud fool, the wise person must find a way to withhold assent from the folly while also bringing the conversation to a gentle close. This end seems to be most intuitively pursued by means of statements which will seem to affirm the right of the fool to believe foolish things, while also signalling why the belief is foolish, preferably in a way that will not be entirely comprehensible to the fool.

The wise person, then, in order to withhold assent from folly while also dealing sociably with a fool, is required to speak with a sort of humble wisdom that by its nature subtly exposes the folly of the fool.

It is an imperfect solution, but it seems to be the best one in most social situations.

Only a humble fool can ever become wise. When someone who had attained some wisdom encounters a seemingly humble fool, that is the opportunity to offer instruction. Seeking to instruct the arrogant fool is something a truly wise person would never do.