But felt through this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
- Henry Vaughan
This is the eternal source of art: a man is faced by a
form which desires to be made through him into
a work. This form is no offspring of his soul, but is an
appearance which steps up to it and demands of it the
effective power. The man is concerned with an act of
his being. If he carries it through, if he speaks the
primary word out of his being to the form which
appears, then the effective power streams out, and the
- Martin Buber
I’ve often wondered what a life-affirming reconstruction in the discipline of philosophy will entail. What could be the defining characteristics of such a task? Where to begin such a formidable task? As far as I can tell, these are timely questions, for while not yet exhausted, philosophy at the present moment, circa 2010, is certainly mortally wounded.
You will notice that my concern in this inquiry is not with the vocation for philosophical reflection, for that sincerely felt inquietude to understand has never been in question, dating to its earliest embodiment with Thales of Miletus. Philosophical vocation is not something that genuine practitioners will develop through contrived, and what are often artificial ways of ‘doing philosophy,’ as some academics refer to this process. The problem, as I see it, lies with a surrogate kind of philosophy that has essentially been turned into an academic cottage industry.
I suspect that any sincere quest to reconstruct philosophy, as this is practiced today in our academic institutions, will eventually be forced to revisit the illuminating thought of John Henry Newman. Newman’s ideas concerning liberal education and the purpose of the university are some of the most constructive and endearing that man has ever conjured up. After much experimentation and many self-serving, destructive approaches to academic philosophy, it is perhaps time that we begin to respect this, the mother of all disciplines, with the same regard that she has rewarded sincere thinkers for over twenty-five hundred years.
In addition, any worthwhile reconstruction in philosophy will also be well advised to garner newly found respect for discussion of the great books. Just because time passes and books age does not mean that fruitful and time-proven ideas should be discarded. In fact, the opposite is worth considering in fresh terms, for the value of liberal education has to do with securing and transmitting our individual and collective history to future generations. This is actually a very practical idea. It is also indispensable in safeguarding learning and liberty in democracies.
In addition, we must not be coy to recognize that the experimental educational goals set up by radical ideologues, beginning over fifty years ago, have proven to be utterly disastrous to the psyche and spirit of western man, and to the health of our culture. Western man must face up to this fact in order to keep our institutions of higher learning from becoming glorified technical schools. Regrettably, the idea of liberal education has been turned on its head. Today, liberal education can no longer be considered enlightened education, but rather sterile, listless instruction, which, at least in the arts and sciences, never apologizes for being sectarian and virulently doctrinaire.
Hobbling about on the courageous, superhuman strength of some of her time-proven, conscientious practitioners, philosophy is today held in a stranglehold by the excesses and maniacal indiscretions of her current detractors and pretenders to the thrown of her former glory. Unfortunately, in many instances, these two are virtually indistinguishable.
In order to revive philosophy again to her once radiant glory, one must also be prepared to entertain the formidable task to rehabilitate words like intelligibility, intellectual honesty, as well as rational and moral integrity, and accountability. In addition, the practitioner of philosophy as a way of life, which incidentally consists of fidelity to truth, must also re-learn to cultivate respect for common sense. Let us not forget that the spirit of philosophy is such that reflection is practiced as an intrinsic end. Socrates and Boethius, for instance, allowed their vital vocation as philosophers to deliver them peacefully onto death and the afterlife.
Thought and thinking-proper are life-long endeavors that allow us to complement our moral/spiritual fulfillment. However, as important as the accumulation of facts and historical understanding are to preserving culture and civilization, these cannot survive if philosophical reflection does not know what to do with them. That is the unfortunate state in which we currently find ourselves as autonomous beings that are endowed with free will.
For instance, any diligent thinker and reader will readily encounter more profound and coherent philosophy in poets of a former age, than in academic ‘philosophers’ of today. Consider the scope and depth in the thought of metaphysical poets such as Vaughan, Donne and Herbert, and romantic writers like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelly and Keats. These writers coupled imagination and rational reflection in ways that sought to comprehend transcendent truth, and which cultivated the possibility of an encounter with the sublime.
Other forms of exploitation that the discipline of philosophy is currently undergoing include the explosion of pretentious jargon, as well as an abysmal privation of imagination in our current disregard for truth. Both of these have done tremendous damage in keeping philosophy from being a meaningful discipline in the lives of intelligent and thoughtful people outside the academy. Lamentably, ours is a reason-starved, morally/spiritually bankrupted, as well as culturally insipid age. Ironically, this is the kind of historical epoch in which philosophy can play a productive and valuable role.
Our inability to practice moral/spiritual or aesthetic humility, this, coupled with our destructive, radical ideological arrogance, currently has philosophy in a death choke. Of course, not to be excluded from any well intentioned future revamping of philosophy, as a vocation and vital discipline, is the understanding that she can no longer survive as the handmaiden of radical ideology.
The sentient observer quickly discovers that there are several practical ways for one to assess the current state and health of philosophical reflection. It is not very difficult to realize the extent of our lamentable dearth of philosophical vocation today. One only needs to look at the dispirited disregard that most academics have for the spirit of philosophy, in their daily encounter with her, to realize that they are beating a dead horse. Philosophy is not only in disparate need of rehabilitation, but also of being revived and resurrected.
In many respects, it seems that the last place where one would go today to encounter philosophy head on is in the academy. This is a major criticism leveled against academics by intelligent, well-read people in other fields. With the exception of the usual stalwarts who spawn creativity out of coerced methods of discussion and teaching, philosophy in the academy, is the plaything of unimaginative scholastics and the graduate students who they entertain.
One interesting way to take the pulse of philosophy today - the foundation of all humanistic disciplines - is to converse with and listen closely to people outside the academy. It is not a coincidence that reflective, thoughtful people outside the academy continue to garner great respect for common sense. They depend on it for their well being, lively hood and survival. Outside the insular walls of the academy, even a minor lapse in common sense can cause a person dearly. Just think of pilot error or mistakes committed by machine operators, health care professionals or soldiers in the field. It is helpful to remind ourselves that a classic definition of insanity is to continue to break one’s head against tried and tested failure and pretend that we will get new results.
However, the failure of academic philosophy ought to come as no surprise to those who serve inside the hallowed halls of academia. Part of the problem lies in that once we divorce philosophy from the vital aspects of human existence that she is best suited for, we then merely end up with a listless carapace, a grotesque residue of her former self. Of course, this carcass is easy to pick at by parasitic pretenders.
While the man in the street seeks illumination and insight for his own vital sake, elite academics merely offer him irrationality and fashionable barbarity. And, while most human beings seek certainty and understanding, these same scholastics can only muster radical, debilitating doubt, moral/spiritual disorientation and a devastating sense of social/political alienation.
Thus, it does not take long before these sincere seekers of understanding and truth become frustrated by the likes of those that they have come to view as multi-degreed charlatans. This is a lamentable travesty that casts much negative light on our institutions of higher learning. Whether reflective people everywhere may or may not be correct in their assessment, nonetheless, it is true that they remain profoundly disenchanted and alienated by ‘professional’ philosophers. It is very rare today that the timeless wisdom that people outside the academy have come to expect from philosophy, is supplied to them by our ultra-modern schoolmen and women, people who happen to possess expensive graduate degrees. People outside the academy are very perplexed and confused by the latter.
Another way to come to terms with the plight and lowly position that philosophy finds herself today is to talk to and listen carefully to small children. The naiveté of the child is a refreshing antidote to the often cynical and, what is today the institutionalized politicization of all aspects of human existence. The child, we are often surprised to witness, asks questions not out of rhetorical and pedantic needs, but rather because it actually seeks a coherent response. Children ask questions because they want to make sense of their experiences. The matter is as simple as that.
Luckily, given their moral/spiritual health, children possess no radicalized political baggage, thus their concerns are solely motivated by a vital search for understanding, and nothing more. This is the elenchus that Socrates promoted. This is the core of the spirit of philosophy. We find that under normal circumstances children possess untold awe and wonder, much like the vital words and living ideas that we first encounter in the heyday of ancient Greek philosophy. The interconnection of awe and wonder is highly suggestive of the healthy spirit of philosophy in its infancy. This is also indicative of the constructive future opportunities for philosophy to make sense once again.
The one profound and lasting lesson that we can take from a child’s sense of wonder is that they do not proceed in their questioning from a preconceived idea of what it is that they seek. This is an essential characteristic of all genuine attempts at understanding. The search for truth is a vital response to the often overwhelming exigencies of human existence. Sure, we have scientific methods of research and methodological truth-seeking, etc., but none of these compare to the sincere and vital manner in which sages and children reflect.
Whether children refer to this activity as truth-seeking is hardly the point. A fine case in point is that of Gilgamesh’s search for immortality. While he hears from the town elders that one does not question the order of things, the young man has no difficulty securing understanding for himself. The kind of knowledge that Gilgamesh seeks does not have a precedent. We can understand this to mean that human existence does not come with an existential manual, as it were. Yet philosophy has traditionally served as the foundation and guide to this particular form of reflection. However, this reflective activity cannot take place after the fact - that is - “there exists philosophy, thus we might as well question things.” This self-conscious artificiality is precisely the modus operendi of hairsplitting, analytic and modish scholastic professors. It is undeniable that, even in the twenty-first century, man’s most pressing concerns still remain that of an existential kind.
Hence, philosophy can become relevant once again. However, we must realize that when we refer to philosophy, we are really talking about two distinct things. One of these refers to the institutionalized brand of professional ‘philosophizing’ that has essentially exhausted itself, and as a result, has become a soulless activity. In that particular world, philosophy merely exists in the capacity of being a specialized activity. Undeniably, like any other activity, this kind of work requires coherence and competence, especially since professional philosophers are, first and foremost, teachers of the history of philosophy. This is a professional activity in that it requires its practitioners to know their craft like other professionals, say, a competent auto mechanic.
The teacher-scholastic profession, as it now stands, has made it its mission to evade vocation as the true purpose of philosophy. Most philosophical scholastics may have turned their back on vital, existential concerns, and may even revel in their own sense of importance, but they can do very little to curtail and stifle the spirit of genuine philosophical reflection.
The spirit of philosophy or what is to philosophize proper, not as a sport or because the profession requires it, but as an existentially pressing need, continues to be a timeless staple of human existence. What we encounter when we first discover the use of our hands as infants in a crib, is already a sign of the profound possibilities that we will encounter as discerning adults. We are born and eventually die, but in between these two poles, we can come to fashion a manner of autonomous existence that is heretofore unprecedented in the cosmos by any other sentient beings – as far as we know.
Man cannot live without certainty. When we look around the logical and even meaningful affairs of our daily world, we do not encounter irregularity, but rather the opposite. What we do find plenty of is resistance to all our whims and passions. As a result of this, we are summoned by reason to make sense of our experiences. We have no other vital choice. This, in turn, requires much care and concern in building the edifice of purpose and meaning that enable us to cultivate the totality of our being.
In return, what we uncover allows us to touch the mystery of being as this is manifested in our own lives, and our need to seek the ultimate cause of our existence. Human existence, then, cannot flourish without regard to our primal need to be moved by the laws of the sublime. All our waking hours, our culture and civilization, and our possibility to become enlightened and contented spiritual beings are all framed by the latter.
Any philosophy that foregoes the possibility of embracing transcendence, and which fashions man as just one more ‘natural’ being among a field of other animals and material processes, does an incalculable disservice to man’s capacity for self-knowledge.