dabs of grue banner

Wotser Proper Filossofer?

philosophy and philosophers, their proper business - its essential features and importance
Four proper philosophers - Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza and Hume
Aristotle Descartes
Hume Spinoza



The philosophy business then and now
The importance of Proper philosophy
Principal requirements and concerns of Proper philosophy
Conclusions and action
A footnote about gender

"It's always appropriate to ask 'Why' and to pursue this question   
to the bitter end. And if no answer can be found, one should ask   
'Why is there no answer'"

The philosophy business then and now

Wotser Filossofer?

In times gone by there was an easy answer. A philosopher was a wise guy with a mixed business, a sort of psychotic supermarket. In his one-stop shop, the dealer would claim, you could pick up all the essential bits and pieces from which the world is made, along with the central governing principles of human life and knowledge. Not only that, you'd be given a master plan showing how to assemble the pieces, and maybe a strategy for applying the principles. So from just one shop you could purchase, nicely gift-wrapped and ribboned, a coordinated package so complete you'd never have to go shopping ever again. These superstore philosophers were architects on the grandest scale and seemed to have answers for every problem.
Ancient paradoxes such as "The Liar" have been eclipsed by Russell's paradox and Godel's incompleteness theorem, which bite at the very heart of maths and logic. One variant of Russell's puzzle concerns a barber with a shaving problem. In this picture, from a Victorian lantern slide, the dilemma seems to poke fun at you. Could she hold the answer?
Nowadays, alas, philosophers are nearly all specialist dealers in one or two minor products, each manufactured by its own patented method and distinguished by an exotic-sounding brand label. Gone are the days of treatises on the Principles of Human Knowledge, the Nature of Existence and the Philosophy of Spirit. If you're looking to build something big - a Meaning-of-Life, say, or a Faculty-of-Perception - you'll need to visit more than a few corner stores to find all the parts. A modality here, a paradigm there, ten bucks worth of foetal rights from the butcher, a packet of sensibilia from under the counter and maybe a hairstyle that's "a member of a set-and-blow-wave that's not a member of itself" from that damned paradoxical barber fellow (!?) A regular Harry Potter's collection, and you still won't have what you're really seeking - the instructions to put it all together.

You call these tinkers philosophers? Shame! What's the use of a bunch of nuts without bolts or a spanner, and no clear idea of what to use them for anyway?

The main business of Proper philosophers, I'd suggest, is to provide the assembly instructions, the Hogwarts schooling. To show us the wood rather than the trees. And to let us see, if we observe carefully, that there's a path through the wood. No, look again! - there are many paths, some leading directly to daylight, but straight and boring, some winding who knows where through groves of joy and thickets of danger, and yet others plunging ominously into the gloomiest depths of the forest. But which way shall we go? Where are the scouts and guides?

A revolution in philosophy?

Today, philosophy is engaged in a rapid sell-off of sectors of its business to cosmology, quantum theory, cognitive psychology, linguistics, anthropology and numberless new-fangled sciences that are forever splitting off from the main stock.

Because of this fragmentation and dissipation, with no central core, no common cause, no flag-bearer and no general recognition of its recent achievements, philosophy has lost both confidence in itself and the support of other academics, who can manage only a pitying smirk or a corpselike stare at the very mention of the name. As for the general public, philosophy in any shape or form is virtually an unknown entity because its exponents have never made a concerted effort to reach them, preferring instead to increase their account at the world bank of jargon and pedantry.

What philosophy needs is a revolution, a return to the Big stuff and a resolve to speak to ordinary people.

For, to my mind, philosophy - that is, Proper philosophy - remains the most important branch of learning, supplying a route to the most important kinds of knowledge that a human being can acquire. Now, as never before, it is profoundly relevant to the wellbeing of everyone who believes they are not merely a cog in a machine but an individual with the ability to influence events and control their lives. Like maths and the mother tongue, philosophy should be a compulsory part of the school curriculum. Why?

The importance of Proper philosophy

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts" - Bertrand Russell

First and foremost, philosophy teaches people to distinguish fact from fantasy, truth from falsehoods, meaningfulness from nonsense, reality from illusion. No other discipline can do this, and if the world is in turmoil, if people get their own lives in a twist, it is primarily due to weaknesses in this fundamental ability to think and behave coherently, in harmony with truth and reality.

Secondly, philosophy teaches people to distinguish right from wrong - not in the manner of the old school, by horsewhip and authoritarian indoctrination, but by showing them how they can make sound judgments for themselves, by giving them reasons why they should behave in this way or that.

Thirdly, philosophy encourages the development of an open, questioning mind and a responsible attitude, furnishing a person with the basic wisdom to create a positive place for himself in society - or maybe to abscond from it.

Fourthly, philosophy (that is, philosophising) quickly informs you of the limits of your intelligence and wisdom, instilling an appropriate degree of humility. (In this respect it's a bit like maths, only more pervasive.)

Fifthly, philosophy stimulates the imagination and can lead to a whole new way of looking at life.

Finally, Proper philosophy will propagate more Proper philosophers, with more ideas of relevance to mankind, and one of whom could turn out to be a Kant or an Einstein. It's been a long time - we need sages like these.

Principal requirements and concerns of Proper philosophy

The word "philosophy" is pregnant with meaning. The very possibility of philosophy contains the seeds of all the major trends that have emerged since the birth of western philosophy at the beginning of the sixth century BC. These seeds - the basic drives and conditions of philosophy - have germinated, grown and blossomed, and from them a multitude of varieties has eventually evolved. I'd like to submit that Proper philosophy today incorporates all these basic drives: they are part and parcel of the philosophical mission, and if anyone professing to do, teach or expound philosophy should disown any of them, his readers might well question his motives, his objectives and the worth of his activities.

1. Autonomy a pre-requisite

A prior condition for the possibility of philosophy is the ability and freedom to think for oneself. If the mind of the would-be philosopher is confined or coerced, whether by genetics or by environment, it will be impossible for him to think innovatively and nurse his ideas to maturity. Environmental factors that may inhibit an individual's philosophical efforts include lack of basic needs, a skimpy education, miseducation, media propaganda, religious and political indoctrination and stress from over-working, family issues etc. The listing of constraints of this kind, however, is quite arbitrary. All thought is restricted, fabricated, conditioned - a product of both breeding and the particular physical and social surroundings in which one has been raised. Perhaps this partly explains why there are so few accomplished philosophers. A philosopher must from the outset make an effort to cut himself free from shackles. True philosophy cannot be cast in a mold, especially not in any authoritarian mold.

Still, this is not good enough. The most serious obstacle that the philosopher must overcome is his belief in necessities in general. For how can he make progress if he is entrapped in a web of preconceptions, great or small, that he believes to be "essential", certain and unchangeable? But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves: one of the most notable (and least successful) quests of philosophy has been, and continues to be, to fathom the nature of these so-called necessities. The modern tendency to pass them all off as linguistic conventions, however, belittles the part they play in shaping our lives. The greatest advances of mankind have been made only by transcending the boundaries of necessity, and subsequent history confirms that what has changed consists of very much more than mere conventions. Strangely, though, it is the "mere conventions" that have often proved most immutable.

2. Rational methods

If philosophy is a search for knowledge, it must have a method, or methods, of searching. What are the assumptions underlying philosophical method, how can we tell that our method is sound? Before we can philosophise, it seems we need to know how to "metaphilosophise". The search for a genuine method is indeed a function of certain types of philosophy, such as theory of logic.

It seems to me that the principal philosophical movements are distinguished chiefly by the kinds of criteria of truth and meaning they accept. Today, however, there appears to be more consensus about these criteria. Even though we may have difficulty spelling them out, there are certain principles of enquiry that "proper" philosophy seems bound to abide by. Most of us are capable of distinguishing a clear, reasoned account from diffuse, bombastic gibberish. In recognising this distinction we taciltly pay respect to the intelligence, rationality, open mindedness and honest intentions of the philosopher. We expect him to use generally accepted criteria of truth and more or less traditional principles of logic. While it may be true that some philosophers see the world as a terribly congested, irrational place, this does not oblige them to model every other sentence on their world view. Philosophy is often a tortuous subject and the universe is indeed a confusing place, but this state of affairs should not be used as an excuse for deliberate twaddle. On the other hand, the philosopher's job is indeed to wrestle with difficult ideas, and it would be most unfair to expect him either to know exactly what he's talking about or to be perfectly sure of his reasoning. If we do not allow him some leeway, how can we expect him ever to say anything radically new? Yet, should he discover a new jewel amongst his ideas, we would be disappointed if he could not display it under a clear glass and a bright light (see #8).

3. Interaction with the wider community

A.C. Grayling
A.C. Grayling, skilled communicator and elegant stylist

A major problem for philosophers is that most of them have not come up with a way of getting their messages out of their private domain (or rather, out of their many separate domains) and into the public arena. The evidence for this is the enormous difficulty one has in finding anyone (outside academic circles) who has the faintest inkling of what western philosophy is. Proper philosophers, you'd think, would have both the desire and the ability to communicate with the general public, or, at least, to set up some line of communication through folk with the gift of translating their messages (see #11 for one idea). Even though many philosophers are excellent writers, with a few exceptions they are shocking communicators. They need to minimise the jargon and bombast and be less assuming about their readers' level of knowledge. They need to develop a degree of respect for their audience, even when they are engaged in challenging their most cherished beliefs. Surely the Proper philosopher wants to reach out to the world. If his ideas do not impinge, however slightly, upon people inhabiting the remotest corners of the Earth, he will not be completely satisfied. (One living British philosopher who attempts to write for the general reader is A.C. Grayling. Unfortunately most of his numerous articles waffle on for too long, with too many commas - i.e. tangential clauses - allusions to obscure persons and events and, in the end, little philosophy of much significance. His writing doesn't live up to the high standards he sets himself. Still, he's well worth a read because his articles bubble over with enthusiasm and common sense.)

4. Monistic, absolutist intent

An important feature of Proper philosophy is that it is monistic or holistic in intent, in the widest sense of these terms. As we have seen, most self-styled philosophers these days appear to be either specialists in some isolated area, or else pluralist, relativist and often incurably schizophrenic. But whoever admits that he's a pluralist or relativist is, philosophically, a defeatist and a sceptic. For the task of philosophy is to reveal the most general relations of ideas and perpetually to seek the absolute, the grand design. Until it discovers the design that relates all ideas and all things it will never sit back on its haunches. Philosophy is the most general and abstract of sciences, the cosmology of the mental universe. And because it seeks a rational understanding of the masterplan (if any), from that point of view it could be regarded as the most valid and genuine of religions.

5. Idealist foundation

Philosophy is inherently idealist. This assertion might be considered trite, or even incorrect, if it amounted to no more than the claim that philosophers apparently have ideas. But there is more to it than that. Not only philosophers but all conscious beings have ideas. And they don't have ideas, as it were, incidentally, along with other things like pea soup and potted plants. Ideas are the only things they ever have. When a conscious being loses consciousness it has nothing. Now philosophers - even those who only talk to themselves - are concerned at the very least with conscious beings - almost always (until recently) with human beings. This concern marks the chief difference between philosophical cosmology and the cosmology of physicists and astronomers, which deals primarily with the material universe. So if, as I believe, philosophy is the prince of knowledge, it holds this position because it is necessarily concerned with the essential stuff of humanity - ideas. And to my mind this implies that philosophy adopts, at least to begin with, an idealist standpoint.

6. Existentialist leanings

Jean Paul Sartre, probably the best known of the existentialists

But this idealism leads inevitably to the realisation that philosophy has remarkably strong solipsist and existentialist tendencies. As far as we know, the consciousness of every individual human being is his own and nobody elses. This makes him an island: his world belongs to himself and to him alone, unshared in any of its deepest nooks and crannies or loftiest peaks. Further, when a person dies, his world dies with him. As far as that person is concerned, the world is at an end, forever. As far as we can reasonably tell. At least we can say this much, that death brings an end to philosophising. And philosophers, acting in the belief that other people are much like themselves, must surely be driven to a passionate concern for individuals, their wellbeing and their fate. Apart from its transience, consciousness displays a number of other features which add fuel to this concern. The most important of these is the propensity for consciousness to enter the condition of pain or misery in its various forms. So if man's isolation and existence - for him the only existence - are concerns of existentialism, all Proper philosophy is inherently existentialist.

7. Libertarian outlook

The intrinsic idealism of philosophy leads it, again, to adopt the characteristic moral and political disposition of our free Western society. At the heart of this ethos lies the conviction that the individual is sacrosanct, and this belief seems to derive from a tacit recognition of the idealist and existentialist view of life. Despite the domination of most people's lives by the inexorable, crushing impact of the outside world (see #10), the individual is king and the world is only his pain or his pleasure. It is his right to be free from domination by any social, political, religious or other organisational force, if only because organisations themselves have no consciousness, no feelings, no rights, no self-meaningful existence. Of course it is true that individuals do interact, do combine to form organised societies, and that these societies have rules governing the interaction of individuals. But the rules (and their keepers) are, or ought to be, there just for the purpose of protecting the rights of individuals, especially the right to reasonable self-determination - a right forbidden the oppressed and the hungry. The basic rule is straightforward: society will least respect the rights of individuals who least respect the rights of others. This implies that the main function of government is to prevent others governing (in the sense of exploiting); that is, to prevent individuals or organisations, whether internal or external to the society, from gaining any kind of control that reduces individual freedom. It also implies that governments have a responsibility to manage natural and agricultural resources to ensure basic standards of wellbeing for everyone.

8. Speculative, "metaphysical" approach

The twentieth century has seen some exciting developments in philosophy, with a number of outstanding individual contributions. But it has also abounded with self-professed philosophers who have confined themselves to dry, verbal analysis and description, without presenting anything in a different light and without adding anything essentially new to the ideas of philosophy. It seems to me, however, that an obvious characteristic of Proper philosophers is their inventiveness and imagination. And if philosophy pursues its cosmological explorations with depth of imagination, we must surely conclude that it is essentially speculative and, at least in that respect, metaphysical. (There is, or can be, a difference between metaphysics that's pure nonsense and metaphysics that shows there's another way of understanding some state of affairs, with possible practical consequences). While some of the spadework of philosophical investigation may consist of detailed conceptual analysis, the claim that this is its primary or only task seems dull and destructive. The Proper philosopher's main task is to expand the frontiers of knowledge, and this involves imaginative construction and integration.

9. Pragmatic objectives

Charles Sanders Peirce, reluctant pragmatist
Another important criterion of Proper philosophy is utility. If the aspirations of philosophers are not essentially pragmatic and useful, then what is philosophy for? I do not say philosophy should be pragmatic to the degree that utility alone should determine the worth of its ideas. But I do say that if the cumulative output of a (so-called) philosopher has no use, beyond "titillating the brains of various sedentary academics", then his ideas probably belong in the domain of romantic literature and poetry rather than in that of philosophy. Furthermore, I think the ultimate utility of philosophical ideas is predominantly ethical. So whoever is engaged in any deliberations he considers "philosophical" must ask himself whether the goal of his activity is ultimately ethical, even if only tacitly or distantly. Speaking in the large, no cosmological system that promises no effects on our lives, compared with what we are doing now, is worthy of the name "philosophy".

Going against the grain, this aspect of philosophy seems to steer us away from the "big picture" paradigm pursued by "properfilossofers". For the ethical questions that now beset the world are many and varied - and often of vital importance. But fixing the problems themselves calls upon the ingenuity and labour of our scientists, not our philosophers. Although many of those problems demand the attention of specialists, the moral aspects are surely better addressed by the wise guys (see 11), who can bring to bear on them a breadth of knowledge and experience.

10. Materialist demands

On the other hand the existentialist and utilitarian aspects of philososophy propel the thinker ever closer to the extreme forms of pragmatism and materialism that characterise the "modern" outlook on life - an outlook which is often anything but philosophical. Not even the extreme idealist can ignore the independence, permanence and aggressiveness of the objective world: every second of his wakeful day it is thrust at him, a torrent of energy from which there seems to be no escape, except by death (and even so, while we live we believe the real world somehow transcends our death). This bubbling, buffeting couldron that we inhabit seems increasingly to beg our complete pragmatic attention, our will to interact positively with it, our accountability and our utmost resourcefulness. The present age is one in which the search for solutions to large-scale practical problems has become of paramount importance. The survival of whole populations - perhaps the entire human race - depends on the success of this complex enterprise. Among the many serious problems facing the nations of the world are population growth, food and water shortage, depletion of traditional energy resources, global warming, unemployment (caused largely by the technology revolution), the root causes of war, political and religious unrest and the continuing risk of a holocaust due to the use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Only a fool would bring children into today's world, believing that tomorrow's is likely to be hell. But fools we nearly all of us are. At least now that we have some of those children you'd think we'd be inspired to do something about protecting their future. Can Proper philosophers help us in this endeavour? Certainly our politicians will not.

11. Knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom

In this era of booming science and technology philosophers are compelled to know, not just a little about a lot or a lot about a little, but a lot about a lot. Especially in the domain of ethics, scientific discoveries make a tremendous impact on one's evaluation of long-standing moral problems, as well as creating many new ones. Philosophers are popularly supposed to be wise guys, and Proper philosophers surely must be so. But wisdom only comes with wide-ranging experience and knowledge acquired over a long period of time. Wisdom also requires an exceptional capacity for making sound judgements, which also takes many years to develop. It follows that almost all Proper philosophers are old (50+, 60+ ?). The youthful, all those philosophy students and tutors ensconced in universities whether abounding in or lacking intellectual acuity, will have to wait (and work) for years before they can claim to be Proper philosophers.

12. It's fun!

Proper philosophers have a sense of humour. I don't know why, they just do. Sooner or later, the reason will hit me. Maybe it's a reaction to the deadly seriousness of theologians and the arrogance of certain of their colleagues who believe their views are the be-all and end-all of the universe, and not for joking about at all. Maybe it's a natural adjunct to genuine open-mindedness and wisdom. Maybe it's just that all Good things are fun. Or maybe, after all's said and done, the world is a thoroughly amusing place, life is its greatest joke, and the greatest thinkers have made this one of their chief, but unstated, discoveries.

Much more obvious is the inverse connection - the fact that the greatest humour exposes the deepest truths and ironies of life. Satirists are our popular philosophers: with their astonishingly negative tactics, they somehow manage to put the nitty-gritty facts of life into sharp perspective and to force our minds into reaction. If you cannot laugh along with the humorists, philosophy may forever elude you, and if you can, you're probably already a philosopher!

Conclusions and action

My list of what Proper philosophy "entails" is not intended to be complete or adequately justified. Nor does every item apply solely to philosophers. And it should be clear that I certainly do not want to suggest that this is an inventory of necessary attributes of philosophy, in any of the esoteric senses of "necessity" that have bedevilled the pages of modern philosophy. It is my view, however, that Proper philosophers cannot ignore any of these aspects of their enterprise. They cannot afford to spend their lives pitting one school of thought against another, or championing any one aspect in isolation from the others.

My call, therefore, is for philosophers always to consider the Big Picture and how their work relates to it; and to spend a little more time trying to communicate with non-academics. I would also like to see more philosophers engaged in the task of constructing Big Pictures, as well as more ("philosophers" or not) specialising in the interpretation of some of the more intimidating theses and explaining their relevance for ordinary men and women.

A bothersome impediment to these changes is the prevailing publication ethic. A profusion of specialised journals handling only quite short articles is sustained by pressure from departmental heads on their staff to cater for this market. The bulk of printed philosophy therefore comes in discrete packages around ten to twenty pages in length. This state of affairs may reflect the way professional philosophers prefer to think, but more than likely it gives them no choice but to think this way, and doubtless it also affects the way their students learn. Both departments of philosophy and publishers (for all intents and purposes they are the same tribe) need to overhaul this system to create a better environment for Big Thinkers.

To teachers of philosophy I would also like to say: stop handing out questions and assignments exclusively on trivial topics. I know it's convenient and the responses are easier to assess, but it's not going to produce Proper philosophers, nor is it particularly going to help students in transit who might be seeking some of the benefits I have outlined in the section on the importance of philosophy.

Modified eastern philosophies are popular among "New Agers" in western society

I suppose it should be mentioned that some eastern philosophies have adopted an entirely different methodology to the one I support here. They claim that the proper course is to induce in oneself a radically altered state of mind, and that by doing so one may reach an "understanding" of the unity of oneself with everything else. Thus the monistic objective of philosophy (#4) may be attained in one extraordinary leap of the mind. Presumably, though, the kind of understanding they claim to acquire is very different from that sought by western-style sages. Whatever it is they do or procure, it is not "philosophical" in the sense of the word we're using, and really I had no more need to mention it than to mention domestic science or motor mechanics. But this does not mean I'm prepared to dismiss it out of hand. Although I've no reason to believe there's music in this mysticism, still, it's just possible I'm tone deaf. But, if so, I have no chance of following the tune and must let those with ears revel in the ecstasy - even if it's only fairy-bells they hear.

I said that philosophy was the most important branch of learning and provides a route to the most important kinds of knowledge. This to some extent implies that philosophy is a means to an end, or ends. It's true, I don't think philosophy matters in the same way that, say, human relationships or personal health or appreciation of the beauty of nature or art or music matter. There are fortunate people who don't need philosophy, because they seem to have acquired that breadth of spirit, integrity, magnanimity, aesthetic consciousness and sense of truth and purpose which most of us never find - all without so much as a sniff of the philosopher's fare. So, while philosophy has a significant role to play in education and in life, there are probably few people for whom it can be an end in itself. This in no way diminishes its regal stature.

A note about gender. It seems necessary to excuse my use of he/his instead of the currently advocated (and politically correct) they/their, or possibly he or she/his or her. Occasionally I may stoop to the first option even though it is ungrammatical and in most contexts feels so strained that it is hard to imagine it ever coming into popular usage. The second option is far too awkward to use repeatedly. I agree a solution to the gender problem is needed, but, as a strong opponent both of the political correctness movement and of the globalisation of English, I'm unlikely to go looking for a solution myself. Meanwhile, where no specific gender is implied, writers might do well to stick to one gender or another within articles. Male writers of philosophy being far more numerous than female, the masculine form is perhaps more appropriate in the present article. For the time being I'll go along with the view (unsatisfactory though it is) that female writers should use the feminine form while male writers use the masculine. But, to be perfectly honest, I can't see any good reason why writers shouldn't use whatever ploy they feel comfortable with. It seems to me to be their right, and, after all, no man or woman is compelled to read their work (Uh-huh! What a dazzling excuse! I guess no black or white person is compelled to swim at a racially segregated beach either).

.......Dave Robinson........17/01/02..........................HOME