Philosophy Anti-Philosophy Leavis

What’s Wrong with Philosophy? 2: It lacks sensibility to human life. 

Wisdom should be about human life, but human life is something that philosophers have the wrong kind of minds for.

Philosophy lacks ‘human sensibility to human life’.  It lacks that particular human faculty of feeling for human matters.  What it has always offered is logic, maths and science, which aren’t the appropriate mental methodologies for the knowing of human life.  Philosophers do a  reductionism on human life until it isn’t human life anymore.  They are like those infuriating schoolboys who are good at maths and at undoing squiggly wire puzzles.  It is as if some of their portals of awareness aren’t there.

The small thing that is missing from Philosophers is their own human self-knowledge.  It is something that doesn’t come by way of logicking, mathematicking or scientificking.  Philosophy has a dearth of inner mental life.

‘Lack of human sensibility to human life’ is rather vague but is the best I have so far found.  It comes from F.R. Leavis (whose opinions are now passé, I’m sure).  If I try to define it, I shall lose it.  What defines the nerd is that he lacks sensibility to human life.  It is a  particular human faculty of feeling for human matters.  What the philosopher offers is logic, maths and science.  It is this that defines the philosopher and the nerd.   Even religion is more sensible to human life.

That I am dissatisfied with ‘lack of sensibility to human lif’e’ means that I haven’t got to the nub.

The examples from human life and speech that philosophy has always come up with to demonstrate its methods on, have always been banal. They lack the subtlety, complexity, concealment, falsity, deception, self-deception, irony, tragedy and comedy, which is what human beings are made of and get up to.  This has been so from the very beginning.  The only example I can presently think of is this rather developed one from Bertrand Russell: the barber who shaves all but only those who do not shave themselves’, (from here). This is the kind of thing from human life that Philosophers deal with, are only capable of dealing with.  They are the wrong kind of people with the wrong kind of minds. 

Here is another example of banalities of human life that occupy philosophers: They make such an important thing out of the ‘Principle of the Excluded Middle’ — Either it will snow today or it will not snow today, but not in-between — which is ‘one of the Three Laws of Thought’.   An ordinary person  just accepts it as not worth talking about.  What would Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope have made of it?  (No, perhaps that’s not actually an example from human life or speech; it’s an example from Logic.  I will find better examples of philosophers’ simple-mindedness about life for further posts.)

Here are some more words to improve one’s understanding of what ‘sensibility to human life’ means.  They come via various interpreters from Leavis, and have then been paraphrased and shortened by me:

To grasp human life, you have to preserve its ‘irreducible concrete wholeness’.  Each moment of human life — of saying, doing or experiencing — is ‘unique and specific’.  It is irreducible into rational abstractions; in fact it has has ‘no abstractable form’, as  Chris Joyce  puts it.  It is unique and ‘unmodifiable’ into a generalization. ‘The concrete and uniquely specific character of human experience’.  Once you abstract on the human, you lose it; you are not dealing with the human anymore.  Logic, maths and science, which are the pathways for abstracting, generalizing and reducing, simply aren’t the right mental methods for the  knowing of human life.  (‘Abstract’ to me isn’t a very illuminating word in that it just means ‘not concrete, i.e. not based on direct sensory perception’.)  ‘Holistic’ is another word applying to human life that I got from interpreters of Leavis, that is missing from Philosophy.  Chris Joyce adds the term, ‘the incorporated nature of life’.  

Human life has to be taken in the concrete and as a whole and not converted or reduced to abstractions by logic, let alone by maths or science.   Science is the way to the truth about things, but using it on human life reduces, minifies and deforms it from its concrete reality.  Don’t abstract and conceptualize – leave human life in the concrete.

 But the lure of being scientific is attractive because it is intellectually more difficult than remaining at the level of concrete perceptions; it is an achievement!

I can’t now exactly trace where I got many of the words in the preceding three paragraphs from:  Chris Joyce and Guy Ortolano certainly, and perhaps others too.  Other sources on Leavis were Lionel Trilling, Paul Dean, wikipedianew world encyclopedia,  and Leavis – Life and Work.

According to Paul Dean, Leavis thought that what is threatened in a world dominated increasingly by technology is the belief in the irreducibility of the individual human being.  (Alright, those last few words are bound to get sympathy.)

The following example from Guy Ortolano is admittedly a rather corny example of  ‘irreducible concrete wholeness of human life’, but here it is: ‘The very statement that water is H2O is a mental tour de force. With our bodies we know that water is not H2O, our intuitions and instincts both know it is not so.’  It was something that Leavis himself had quoted from D.H.Lawrence.  By ‘mental’, Leavis meant that ‘H20′ is a statement of such abstraction that it wipes out the concreteness of sensory life.

I am nowhere near highbrow enough to be some kind of literary follower of Leavis.  His love of the to-me incomprehensible poetry of T.S. Eliot, and his high demands of literary reading from his undergraduates, are beyond me.  I would like to render his ‘sensibility to human life’ into more concrete terms of my own but it is the closest I can get at the moment to what I want to express.

What  I mean by ‘reductionism’ is that human life is not left as an irreducible whole, as in a novel by Anthony Trollope.  It gets chopped up and mentalized into abstract concepts which are then generalized on. 

[But even on this concept of reductionism, the philosophers  divide it into scientific and evolutonary reductionism, (see here, here , and here ). And probably other sub-divisions too. But these kinds of reductionism are already well into philosophy, even philosophy of science. I mean something more basic, before philosophy or science even start.]

I remember being at the home of someone interested in philosophy, particularly on ethics which he was wont to get up on his hind-legs and lecture on.  I was amazed that his bookshelves contained nothing but human and social sciences.  There were no novels, by Anthony Trollope or by anyone else.  My immediate feeling was, ‘These books contain nothing but small de-humanizing generalizations about human beings: they’re not about human beings as they are.’  I think that in my ignorance I was touching on what is meant by ‘abstractionism’ and ‘reductionism’, which are at the other extreme from the concrete irreducible reality of human life which this chap’s intelligence lacked.  

[‘Abstract’ is an uninformative term.  It just means that the thought or statement isn’t one of sensory perception.  Abstract thinking turns the sensory perception into a generalization or concept and then goes on from there, making it more and more distant from the original sensory experience.  (No, I’m sure that analysis isn’t up to philosopher’s standards.)]

How was it that some people in Ancient Greece took the fateful first step of seeing Wisdom as consisting of logicking, mathematics and science?  They called it Reason, and they were called Philosophers..  

I  get the idea momentarily from somewhere that poetry was in ancient times the natural way to express matters of profundity and ultimacy.  It included the gods and their myths. Then along came philosophy with its Reason and this was in prose.

Perhaps one can say that Philosophy from the beginning was a holy duty to abolish the human.  They started by removing the gods, who behaved like bad humans, from explanations of how physical things worked; and, since the 19th century, they’ve been taking the human out of how the human mind works.  It is an attempt to find material causes rather than intentional acts. 

I was once sitting in a Philosophy class at a university and said something about Jung because I was a confused fellow.  Anyway, a middle-aged lady next to me turned and said that what I had just said represented education, and that the people lecturing to us didn’t!  What a thing to say!  She spoke spontaneously and unpretentiously.  Someone felt like I did!  Knowing what Jung said about the irrational unconscious was Education for her, and the logicking we were getting from our lecturers simply wasn’t!  

I was amazed too in the opposite direction, when other students whom I had dismissed as unsophisticated and unimaginative dullards (whom I rolled my eyes up to the heavens at) took readily to Philosophy like ducks to water, while I was left scratching my head. They even did some philosophizing themselves!  They were better than I was!  Yet they weren’t exactly the sort of people who read Jonathan Swift or Anthony Trollope. 


Here are some addenda: 

Why did Leavis give such importance to literature which is only a small corner of culture?  Because it is unique in creating the concrete wholeness of human life.  It doesn’t reproduce or report human life.  It creates it, he wrote.  Literature creates concrete particulars and not abstractions.  He also said that language has always had a centrality in truth about human life (-does this just mean that language is the best way to tell the truth?) and that literature is the highest point in language.  To my pedestrian mind, literature gives experience too — it broadens the mind towards human life.  Open a novel by Anthony Trollope, and you’re amongst the clerics of Barsetshire in the 1850s; you’re a fly on the wall and you can wallow in the entertainment.

D.H. Lawrence said somewhere that when one lifts off into abstractions, one loses profundity on human life.  I  feel I have achieved a certain profundity of understanding when I lift one storey up into abstraction, but then I need to stop before I lose it.


Philosophers, and social and human scientists, make statements about human life.  They do so from atop edifices of  logic, maths and science on the subject built up since the 19th century.  When I hear a distinguished person of the university using these modes of thought on human life, I consign him to the ranks of the uneducated.  

I once heard a schoolchild talking, and his language had  echoes of the reading of English literature; I sighed inwardly with relief that here was some education.

As I remember and as I have put into another post, many thinkers since Ancient Greece saw  the role of literature as merely to put across in lively form the great truths of Philosophy or of Religion   Dilthey in the 1880s  reached deeper in saying that, while science deals in causes, the humanities provide understanding of what motivates individual human selves.   Leavis’s views on  ‘sensibility to human life’ take one closer to understanding what is wrong with Philosophy.

Some philosophers take seriously the idea that the mind is the brain, and that this mind-brain is similar to Artificial Intelligence.  Good heavens! What kind of inner life must their own minds have?


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