When I started reading interpretations of the great Philosophers of the Western World from Thales of Miletus onwards, I couldn’t believe they were really serious in expounding their logico-mathematical cogitations as Wisdom. I couldn’t hold what they seemed to be saying in my mind. This was stuff for bright schoolboys. Surely, I felt, they must be saying something higher and deeper, but which I was failing to get hold of.
But, when I dropped my worshipful attitude to them, and started to discover my own views and values, I suddenly started to understand what they were saying and what kind of minds they had.
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 experiencing people and oneself, of danger, of risk, of mortal danger, of things crashing about one’s head, strengthening one’s character, temperament and truthfulness with oneself, ultimately giving one Wisdom? All this passes them by.
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, was more radical than what appears in the humanities versus sciences debate going on since the late 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 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, and in the cave by the fire, and later in the streets and market-places. Language had already taken these problems of its own imperfections into account with a nod and a wink. Language has alwasy been just a rough attempt to express what comes to us in our senses and in our feelings. Language already contained some wisdom before philosophers wiped it away with contempt and started logicking from the beginning using language.
I do believe that scientific method is the only way to knowledge of things that haven’t got selves, like gravity and the heavenly bodies. But it is a kind of knowledge, such as that water is H2O, that detracts from our experience of the concrete wholeness of the thing (see an earlier post). 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 now on practical benefits such as dentistry and sewage disposal 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 for me basic to becoming educated and not a nerd, yet I don’t know why (also mentioned here). 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 exploring and understanding of human character. 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 the landscapes and seascapes they create through their words. (I wrote that paragraph before reading Leavis on ‘Sensibility to the irreducible concrete wholeness’ of human life and in literature, see here.)
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 — and then this same degree of intellectual ethicalism helps justify them in their hypocrisies while happily unaware of them. He was an unsophisticated sort of chap who’d never led a life, or read a decent novel.
I now know that what I was objecting to was ‘a lack of sensibility to the the concrete wholeness of human life’. Human life is what worthwhile literature creates, (see here). It creates an unabstracted wholeness of life, even though it’s only on the page. Philosophy gives us the rationalistic immaturity of bright schoolboys, the abstracted, reductionized Philosophy and science of 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, plus what was needed for social success.
Where can one find relief from the Western mind?
Are there others so alienated from the Western mind that they have always groaned with ennui at everything offered them in this civilization because it was somehow dead and worthless?
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 some kind of occult and futuristic alternatives! So it was for me another kind of wrong-headedness. But he was the nearest I could at that time find to a Criticism of Philosophy. Leavis’s ‘lack of human sensibility to human life’ was better, although he didn’t mean it as a dismissal of Philosophy.
I tried the Existentialists, but couldn’t quite credit what they seemed to say. They started off well by saying that Philosophy had never been to do with human life. But they themselves had the kind of minds capable of absorbing this Philosophy’s 2500 years of logico-mathematical thinking. What made them ‘Existentialists’, it seems, was their momentous discovery that Man is different from a concept! (You don’t say!) A person comes into existence first and then makes something of himself! ‘Essentialism’ refers to Plato’s pointing out that a concept has to have an essence to come into existence at all.
It seems to me to be a gross instance of lack of ‘human sensibility to human life’ to reduce human life to being on the same plane as an idea in logic. I still can’t credit that this is really what the Existentialists were saying. Does it come under some gross kind of ‘Category Mistake’?