When I started reading interpretations of the great Philosophers of the Western World, from Thales of Miletus onwards, I couldn’t believe they could really have been serious in expounding their logico-mathematical cogitations as Wisdom. I couldn’t hold what they seemed to be saying in my mind. Surely, I felt, they must be saying something higher and deeper, but which I was failing to get hold of. (Am I right in using the term ‘logico-mathematical rationality’? I’m not even sure that that is quite right in summing them up.)
Anyway, when I dropped my worshipful attitude to them, and started to unearth my own thinking and values, I suddenly started to understand what they were saying and what kind of minds they had.
Many people in their adult years come to Philosophy expecting something high and deep, from the depths of human experience and self-knowledge, something to rival and supersede religion, but what they get is logicking! They were right in their original expectations of what Philosophy should be.
The naivety of Philosophers on human life
I was shocked at how banal the examples from human life and speech were, that philosophers drew on to illustrate their questions and answers. But such examples are the only ones that the logico-mathematical mentality can think to work on. I’ll have to give examples as I come across them again.
Where for instance are the implicit, paradoxical, ironically playful subtleties and immoralities of language, intentional or otherwise, ill-understood by the speaker himself or herself? Where is the seeing of a bit of life, the living of a bit of life, of the low life, of the experience of people and of oneself, of danger, of risk, of mortal danger, of things crashing about one’s head, strengthening one’s character and temperament and truthfulness with oneself, ultimately giving one Wisdom? All this passes by the Bertrand Russells and Ludwig Wittgensteins.
I often couldn’t credit what the great philosophers like Descartes and Locke were saying. Their greatest dictums sounded so pedestrian, banal and naïve, that I felt I must be missing something.
I feel that my astonishment at what Philosophy amounts to, is more radical than what appears in the humanities versus sciences debate going on since the mid-19th century, or in the rationalism versus romanticism debate, or in the thought versus life debate, or in the concrete versus abstract debate.
Is it Informal Logic?
Someone I knew of, who had switched from Theology to being a lecturer in Philosophy, said that philosophy is just informal logic. I don’t know whether this is exactly right, but sounds roughly as if it could be.
I am a stickler for logic in ordinary communication, and get infuriated by people whose words make no sense after I have taken all the trouble to concentrate on them till the end. But for philosophers to take logic further, onto one level of abstraction after another above concrete experience, in order to explain all kinds of things, is simply wrong-headed.
I felt they dealt in a nitpicking of logic with logic, a bending backwards to eat their own tails, some kind of weakness for obsessive logical certainty and completion that the human mind is prey to.
I wanted to say to them, ‘Just stop, stop, when you feel yourself slipping down this path, just break through and use language for what it was invented for!’ Language was created by Homo sapiens on the savannahs, in the caves by the fire, and later in the streets and market-places. Language has already taken these problems of its own imperfections into account with a nod and a wink. Language already contained some wisdom before Philosophers wiped it away with contempt and started logicking from the beginning using language. Did Wittgenstein say something of beginning usefulness on this subject, or was he himself the most dreadful of nerds? I rather think the latter.
How can you know yourself and know others through logic, maths and science? It is absurd that this was called ‘Philosophy’. Knowledge of this kind isn’t wisdom
Philosophers and scientists are prodigies of thinking, but it is of the kind that one can well believe that Artificial Intelligence will one day be its equal.
I do believe that scientific method is the only way to knowledge in the realm of matter and energy, such as gravity and the heavenly bodies which haven’t got selves. I gasp at Science and at Mathematics, and at computers and mobile phones. My mind can’t even grasp today what Newton was writing in the 1690s, but to me it just isn’t Wisdom. I’m not interested in the sciences, though I depend for my life on practical benefits such as dentistry and sewage disposal, antibiotics and computers.
Sixty years ago it was still the done thing to be ‘well-read’, which meant having read the great novels, mainly of the 19th century. I don’t expect this is so today.
Being well read is, I think, basic to becoming educated and not a nerd, yet I don’t know why, and the literary academics aren’t illuminating on this subject. It is a mystery, something to do with the broadening of one’s experience and one’s mind by the use of words and by the exploration and understanding of human character, its real and complex circumstances and motives, why it does things that are normally condemned. And all of this comes out of the inexplicable gifts of the novelist for creating stories and characters that never were. I also have a taste for their landscapes and seascapes.
I once went to the home of someone absorbed in Philosophy, especially ethics. He gave lectures on it, got up on his hind-legs at meetings and churned it out, smiling as he did so as if heroically virtuous, and later founded annual lectures on it. In his home, his shelves were crowded with books on social and human sciences. I groaned. I felt there was nothing human in his home or in his mind. People like that think that learning ethics and speaking ethics makes them good — Virtue by way of Reasoning, but then this same reasoning helps them justify themselves in their hypocrisies which they are happily unaware of in. He was an unsophisticated sort of chap who’d never led a life, or read a decent novel.
I think education and wisdom come firstly by way of seeing a bit of life and living a bit of life; but also by Classics, Religion, History, and certainly also History of Philosophy which is understanding what philosophers have been saying for the last 2500 years.
I looked up here what was taught at the universities when they were founded in the Middle Ages. It amounted to arithmetic, geometry, astronomy (including astrology), music theory, rhetoric, logic, grammar, law and ‘science’. I groaned. Even then, it was a rationalistic training for the brain, plus what was needed to make one socially successful.
People look down on the humanities as being intellectually easier than the sciences because they don’t involve so many ‘terms’ and ‘concepts’. I presume this means not so many generalizations, abstractions, universals, rather than concrete particulars. (See how backward I am in these basics of Philosophy!)
The writers of the Bible and the people they wrote about, centuries before the first Greek philosophers, managed to deal with reality without Philosophy.
Where can one find relief from the Western mind?
Are there others, so alienated from the Western mind that they have always stood shivering on the side-lines, not understanding what was going on, groaning with ennui at everything offered them, because it wasn’t life, it wasn’t living, it wasn’t being alive; and unable to find other minds that gave them help, that justified their own way of thinking?
A paper that advanced my daring a couple of years ago was “A Genealogy of the Western Rationalist Hegemony” which apparently can now be found here, here, and here. The author was better able to understand and aim shots at the philosophers than I was, but he then recommended occult alternatives which were definitely not to my taste — it was for me another kind of wrong-headedness. But he was the nearest I could find to a Criticism of Philosophy.
I tried the Existentialists, but even by them I was astonished and couldn’t quite credit what they seemed to say. Firstly, unlike me, they had minds capable of absorbing the logico-mathematical Philosophy of the ages but then came up with the momentous discovery that it had never been to do with human life. So far, so good!
But then they said it was because, according to Plato, things (or rather concepts of them) have to have essences before they can exist (‘Essentialism’), while Man exists before he develops himself (‘Existentialism’)! You don’t say! — a concept has to have an essence before it can come into your mind, but man comes into existence, and then makes himself.
Firstly it’s a flop-to-the-floor truism; and secondly a gigantic Category Mistake to move something applicable to Logic straight over to being a wisdom on Human life. Lessons from logic, to lessons on Life! The essence-existence difference is not only shallow but perhaps a gross example of what Philosophers call a ‘Category Mistake’. It sounded to me another instance of the banality of philosophers on human life.
I think I believe in Rationality and Realism, though not the unimaginative logico-mathematical and scientific rationalism of my schoolfellows of long ago, plodding on grey pavements to school in their grey knee-socks and black shoes, to sit at desks all day and then go to ancient universities while I was left gaping.
Rationality of this type often goes along too with a simple-minded ethicalism that makes me cringe — an unsophisticated lack of understanding that one is a sinner and that life is complex, too much to be ruled by a grocer’s list of goody-goodnesses. (This last grocer’s metaphor is D.H. Lawrence’s, see here .)
(This theme continues on other posts under Philosophy on this site.)