From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 1 ('Doing Philosophy').
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1. THE SCOPE OF PHILOSOPHY
Is not the very idea of philosophy to address the big questions? Is philosophy not Archimedean in nature, setting up a fulcrum and using leverage to move the Earth itself?
2. THE RETREAT FROM PHILOSOPHY
The lack of thinking in philosophy groups has always intrigued me. I have always felt that groups revert to aggression, regress to infantile emotional states, replace insight with cliché, resort to one-upmanship, enhance miscommunication, and avoid a joint venture towards productive, elegant conversations. ‘Thinking with’ is what I want to do. Predictability, opinion-making, lack of thought, and fear of saying (or asking) something original/unusual/from the heart have always struck me as totally unnecessary in matters philosophical.
3. PHILOSOPHICAL METHOD
There are many answers to what philosophy is trying to achieve. For me, however, it boils down to bringing mind and reality together. For, given the propensity of mind towards elaborate flights of fancy, and given the nature of reality to hide its secrets and preserve its core, it seems the two shall never meet. And indeed, the postmodernists, to give a prominent recent example, would happily pontificate that we are the creators of our own reality. And nowadays most people in my experience tend to side with this kind of sceptical position. For all my sins, I have never shied away from myself or got so lost in acts of distraction or flights of fancy that I have lost sight of the core of who I am, nor have I sought to escape or deny, or even rationalise away, the existence of others (as reality), their difference, their idiosyncrasy, however discordant with me it would appear to be. Do we create reality or does reality discover us? Do writers of fiction, for example, create reality, or do they mine the raw materials of reality? In matters philosophical, and especially in relation to questions of mind and self, discovery and creation are so closely intertwined that the temptation to collapse the former into the latter is always there, but must be resisted. Hence, I suppose, the notion of relationship as method, to bridge what otherwise splits apart and polarises, to facilitate the journey of discovery. I have always claimed not to hold a philosophical position, but rather embrace them all in a meta-position. So the method is simply a conversation between philosophical positions, a conversation that holds as its goal nothing less than moving from split and dichotomy to integration and relationship.
4. PHILOSOPHY AND TOTALITY
The world is full, multi-faceted, full of dimensions. Any perception, deed, decision, indeed being itself, is arbitrary, random, selected from the whole to stand for it, and thereby prevent, deny, mask, and obstruct that which was not selected, the totality of things, otherness, alternative, possibility. Most life endeavours succumb to this inertia, from God the arbiter of lights vs. dark, down to every individual making choices. Philosophy therefore emerges, equipped with ever-sharper questions, to expose and challenge the arbitrariness of being, to call out that which is pushed aside, repressed, oppressed, irrationalised, to remind us, lest we forget, that the world of phenomena (appearance, perception) is but an echo, representation, tip-of-the-iceberg, of the enormity, complexity, and beauty in reality that we omit in our race to anchor infinity in the digestible.
5. STARTING FROM REALITY
While many modern and post-modern thinkers approach the notion of reality as ‘phenomena’, I try to say something significant about ‘noumena’ (both Kantian concepts of course). For the post-modernist all there is is mind which constructs, creates and instrumentalises all and sundry outside and out there. We do not and cannot know reality (some post-modernists would take it all the way to ‘there isn’t anything to know’) as the mind forever stands in the way, and there is nothing that is not mind-dependent. This, of course, leads to the conclusion that we should concentrate on knowing ourselves, and hence an inclination to collapse philosophy, in the end, into psychology. Many people have a lot of sympathy with this position, even in sincere acknowledgement of unovercomeable subjectivity.
Simply stated, I place reality at the start of my thinking, even as a working hypothesis, and work my way towards a perceiving-responding, indeed constructing-creating, mind, without losing sight or forgetting that reality enjoys the ultimate ontological status, that it simply is there, that it has always been the task of philosophy to address, that it is eternal, timeless, preceding and outliving, indeed encompassing and incorporating what may well be an all-perceiving, perhaps even all-knowing, mind that is indeed singular in scope and prototypical of reality itself, and yet overcomeable nonetheless, namely with a bit of humility and self-discipline one can put it aside and, as much as we are full of, indeed fascinated with, ourselves and our power to fantasise and create myths, stories, and narratives, there is still something significant, indeed most significant of all, that outsmarts us in our observer-illusion to place us under its all-embracing gaze.
To me this position is not mystical at all (an accusation that is often levelled against me), but rather the modern mind has lost a sense of the real and the not-me, indeed of itself, to such an extent that the very notion of reality, alterity, and otherness seems to have collapsed wholesale into what is now termed and glorified as the signifier, which has come to replace that which it came to signify in the first place. Thus, signification (representation, in old parlance) has turned things around, and our grasp (simulacra) is seen as the thing-in-itself.
6. PHILOSOPHY IS THE TRUE THERAPIST
The mind is divided into its core and the layers surrounding it. However these layers are not necessarily an extension of the core; rather they may act in discordance with it. Equally, reality may not manifest itself fully in accordance with its source or nucleus. So in any encounter between mind and reality there are at least four protagonists at play (as they say, the plot thickens). To me, this is far from mysticism, and in actuality a closer approximation of what Wittgenstein refers to as the state of affairs.
I think it’s important to unravel heterogeneity in things great and small such that we have a better understanding of what happens once we enter relational fields, like the fundamental encounter between mind and reality. For if each contains kernels (to say the least) of the other in itself, our understanding will shift from the notion of struggle, warfare, or even encounter, to the more plausible idea of recognition. Indeed, what happens if we see ourselves in the mirror? Do we conclude it to be a reflection (ontologically reduced) or do we grant it reality of sorts, thus allowing it to enhance our knowledge of ourselves and, in the process, learning something about the not-me, even if/as it corresponds in all details with our previously held, pre-mirror-revelation notion of ourselves?
It seems to me that the idea of self (evidently legitimate) has grown out of all proportions, following the killing of God, the collapse of communities, the rise of identity, the ostensible ubiquity of choice, the end of friendships, and the multiplication of narcissistic clear-waters through social media and the like. Small wonder, then, that an undifferentiated self (which has arguably become a universal, if this isn’t a paradox or conundrum) has to disintegrate into the Laingian ‘divided self’, with its concomitants of depression and anxiety – all simply echoes of unprocessed and intellectually denied aspects of otherness and reality. Were these to be processed and accepted, the very concept of self would be rendered superfluous as it only survives due to our denying it certain aspects of itself, i.e. reality in its totality. Indeed the processing, acceptance, and integration of these divided and forgotten aspects of reality reveals the very activity of philosophy itself. Philosophy, as the Ancients recognised, is the true therapist.
Plato says knowledge is return to source. Folk wisdom stipulates that the treasure you seek is in your backyard. Religion seems to indicate that true knowledge lies in innocence, harmony, belief, and acceptance, pre-apple and before-the-fall, in paradise and intimacy, before desire cut a wedge between creation and consciousness. Indeed, what do we perceive in art, hear in music, experience in theatre and cinema but resonance of aspects of ourselves, long-lost in our daily lives – hence the famous Aristotelian catharsis, a glimpse of remembrance, a pang of recognition.
To sum it up, liberation entails know thyself, investigate reality’s veils, and allow the proverbial noumenal to emerge.
7. WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?
Philosophy is a grand thought-experiment, an ongoing working hypothesis where thinking takes a break from the relentless notion of life, from our habits and habituations, from a self-imposed pressure for justification, prioritisation, purposefulness, functionality, and its dependence on an accustomed, taken-for-granted, unexamined benchmark to measure itself against.
Now, to me philosophy itself is the benchmark, holding in suspense for all eternity that which by the very idea of philosophy depends on it. Namely, everything is still open, up for grabs, otherwise possible, yet-to-come, would-have-been, within the realm of consideration. And until philosophy has thought all through (admittedly a long-range project), what we do for now truly doesn’t matter, can pass as arbitrary, fluctuate, swap, shift, and change, and falsify its dichotomous nature.
So, for now philosophy is a work in progress, a threading endeavour, within which literally anything goes, so long as it is committed to the philosophical project. All positions, I take it for granted, embrace the idea of philosophy, and it is only in the name of it, on behalf as it were, recognising and investigating other positions (already stated and yet to come, in agreement or opposed) that the work of philosophy, the very being of it, comes to be. For what else is philosophy if not an exploratory, investigative, reaching out, forever considering, enterprise? How can a position come to be, if not aware of its inverse as twin, mirror-image, negation and affirmation?
I always felt that to hold a position was anti-philosophical, so for me the challenge has always been to understand the emergence, love-hate relationship, the interplay and the pregnant tension involved between positions, the mind becoming aware that others think otherwise, that it is possible to think otherwise, that what we negate/oppose is nonetheless valid and holds claim to the same ideal we do, that we are joint travellers on the same journey, sharing destination, method, love, commitment, self-discipline, and as such unite in a meta-position. Heraclitus’ formulation was unity-in-multiplicity, at once recognising difference and integration. To me, philosophy raises a signpost at the outset, inviting us to consider adversity as intimacy. So any attempt to explore a relation between mind and reality already counts itself to the project even if it demonstrates a wedge between them.
The important bit is that philosophy invites us to go beyond our cosy constructs, be they post-modernist, Kantian, or otherwise. A priori, that which we don’t (yet) think is the very foundation of our thought, a stretch from nothingness to somethingness (and vice versa), compelling upon us (if we allow) a notion above categories, beyond classifications, not what we think but that we think.
8. CLEARING THE RUBBLE
Chip away at culture, convention, profession, belief, role, affiliation, even language itself – and, lo and behold, philosophy appears, like the wonderful metaphor of the sculptor who allows the figure to emerge when all else has been chipped away. For of course we need to uncover in order discover. Our own head, and all that happens when heads come together, is/are full of illusions, needs, desires, ideologies, and false authorities. How else can we come at truths but through the unravelling of non-truths? How is reality to emerge but through the identification of the non-real? Isn’t it the task of the philosopher, through whatever method, to penetrate, go through, investigate, question, and dust off, until the gem, or core, or kernel, or grain of truth, is-ness, reality, sense, essence, nature, God, or otherwise, emerges from the ashes of not-being that we allow ourselves to get submerged in, day-by-day, deed-by-deed, encounter-by-encounter, and, yes sadly, even philosophy-by-philosophy?
9. THE TASK OF PHILOSOPHY
The fear, I suppose, is that a dynamic understanding of reality opens the way to post-modernist attacks on the absolute nature of reality, relativising it to a subjectivist status by removing any anchor, fixity, or permanence, ushering in personal diffusion, and resulting in surrender, withdrawal, pursuit of pleasure, and the collapse of values. This logic is very interesting indeed.
Why does the human mind need - necessarily - a firmly defined reality, with well-established natural laws, full determinism, and a physical theory of everything? Are we destined to take leave of our senses in an indeterminate universe? Do we need reality to be anchored in order to anchor ourselves? All this stems from a dichotomy between mind and reality, suffused in philosophical tradition and culture at large, where the temptations of the mind are felt to be beyond our control, thus requiring external agencies (law, morality, authority, society, religion, science, knowledge, love etc.) to stem the flow.
We thus embark on a form of wishful thinking by projecting into reality that which we could not endow ourselves with, namely that it should be different from us, not liable to the vagaries of life, having an ultimate stability come what may, and thereby, by a process of osmosis and instruction, enable us to overcome our temptations. If this is not ‘bad faith’ I don’t know what the term means.
Now, if we are to live up to the task of philosophy it is incumbent on us to do some hard conceptual (logical?) work. So, here goes. It seems that the whole edifice is built on splitting mind from reality. The former is experienced to be in turmoil, so the latter should be granted serenity. Instead of self-reflection, thus aiming to know and to understand, we perform an intellectual somersault to save ourselves from the perceived abyss opened up as the Pandora’s Box of consciousness reveals its contents to us. Humans have been granted an opportunity to stare at reality via their consciousness - and recoiled. The contents of their minds gave them a glimpse into nature and beyond (God?). In themselves they perceived infinity and all that it entailed. To know thyself, therefore, had become the equivalent of to know it all.
The Greeks, it appears, by design or default, came to a triple realisation: 1) We must know ourselves, 2) Reality, with all its horror, can be faced, and 3) Know thyself amounts to knowing reality - and vice versa. Wonderful as they were, philosophy (along with other things) poured through. Frightened as we are, philosophy is reduced to intellectual acrobatics. So, the opening up of reality is the opening up of the mind. Knowing the truth, whatever it is, leads away from post-modernism, nihilism, constructionism, relativism - and all that perennially confused mind-dependent thinkers conclude. Indeed, in their terms, what we may think of as super-human laws are themselves human constructs eager to bestow on reality, nature, God, their fear of what is, thus averting our gaze from the inescapable fact that it is. For, they say, all of the above may indeed be ordered in their own way, there may well be method in the enormity, but ultimately whatever we assume to be the case cannot escape anthropomorphism. For me all they have done is to put the genie back in the bottle through a series of very complicated linguistic tricks. Most people have a suspicion that the wool has been pulled over their eyes, but lack the philosophical sophistication and intellectual acumen to mount a worthy defence. Also of course the post-modern approach seems to convince people that we have tamed and taken control of reality now, so there is no need to be afraid. No more fear and trembling a la Kierkegaard. But fright is a good thing! Awe, wonder, fear in the face of what is - this is where philosophy came from.
It seems to me that for now the problem can easily be resolved, namely that mind is a manifestation of reality. What the post-modernists and their sceptical bedfellows assume to be the workings of the mind on reality can now be seen as reality’s way of working through the mind upon itself. In other words, reality is dynamic, allowing various components within it to interact with one another, forever open to the process of birth, emergence, interaction, molecularisation (aggregation of units to form complexities). The mind constructing reality amounts to reality constructing itself, and the mind itself will come to realize this as it recognises its own incompleteness in temporal terms, time ultimately being of the essence. At this point, the mind, like the reality from which it emerged, will be complete.
The sceptical position I have critiqued does not stem, as its advocates would like to think, from a foundation-shaking Nietzschean discovery. It is simply a refusal to know, a retreat from the philosophical project, a temporary illusion of sceptical triumph in the long march of philosophical inquiry.
10. THE PHILOSOPHICAL ENTERPRISE
It is so often the case that enumeration of peccadilloes by leading thinkers resonates as invitation to call in the thought-execution-squad. Human failure is seen as philosophical error. Only recently someone commented to me that philosophers are ‘inadequate human beings’. And so what? Surely we must consider the thought in separation from the thinker. My pet theory, for what it’s worth, is that thinkers shoot themselves in the foot as socio-moral guilt sets in. In daring to go further they shoot the messenger. The daring idea consumes its proponent. Those who utter the truth are more aware of its ramifications, namely a wholesale critique of everything we know and live by, and therefore the inevitability of change, the collapse of categories, the realisation of inauthenticity, the sense of self-betrayal, and much besides. No wonder insanity sets in.
As for me, none of it seems to apply. Firstly, I am not such a great thinker myself so as to feel the need to retreat from my creation. I am merely an observer-participant in humanity’s adventure. From childhood, I seem to have embraced the full spectrum, the ongoing continuum, the stretch of the mind and the arc of reality. I am a synthesizer at heart. I seek to integrate ‘oppositions’ and collapse dichotomies. My position, as known and derided by all my friends and colleagues, is a meta-position. I admit it is an annoying habit. It is as if you refuse to take part in the game. It smacks of arrogance and aloofness. To my surprise (and intellectual pleasure), all positions will unite and come together against a common enemy - the meta-position (which, in a sense, proves my point that there is no substance, philosophically speaking, separating them from each other).
So, I stand with all - the sinners and the righteous, the actioneers and the contemplators, the pragmatists and the idealists etc. In their own way they all take part in the process of discovery I crave. Despite their protest (indeed, because) they all work their way to the real. Overcoming the mind is the philosophical enterprise. Reality is where we stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, mind-to-mind, position-to-position. Our minds separate us. Reality is the great unifier.
Joel Yoeli is a retired consultant clinical psychologist and active community philosopher. He has been likened to Socrates with a post-Freudian twist.