Why Should We Do Philosophy?

When contemplating what philosophy is and specifically what the goals of philosophy are I am reminded of Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics.  In the beginning of this work he discusses what he considers to be false notions of philosophy, which he characterizes as an attempt to rationalize philosophy in scientific terms in order to appease what he deems to be mundane and misplaced standards.  He discusses the common justifications of  how philosophy can lead to practical results: such as forging a distinct culture or society, or if we follow the pre-Socratic current of thought through to the physics of Aristotle and Democritus, we get the preliminary and proto-thought processes necessary for the development of science etc.   After considering these typical justifications Heidegger adds the following:

"You hear remarks  such as 'Philosophy leads to nothing,' "you can't do anything with philosophy,'  and readily imagine that they confirm an experience of your own.  There is no denying the soundness of these two phrases, particularly common among scientists and teachers of science.   Any attempt to refute them by proving that after all it does 'lead to something merely strengthens the prevailing misinterpretation to the effect that the everyday standards by which we judge bicycles or sulpher baths are applicable to philosophy."

When reflecting on this, it seems that the main misnomer in all this, is that we are confusing the planes of our being when we judge or justify philosophy by everyday mundane standards.  If we accept the assertions of previous thinkers such as Leibniz, Kant etc, the world of vulgar science is but one plane of reality with its own truths, whose reality and validity is related to a specific range of phenomena.  Metaphysics seeks to extend our human perception with the faculty of creative and logical reasoning to perceive stronger and deeper truths which underlie the fallible and changing patterns seen in our typical perception of phenomena.  

Yet, even if we reject all metaphysics, as is the fashion of our times, and assuming such is truly possible, the value of philosophy still transcends the value judgments of science and technical effectiveness.  Let me explain: science really is a branch of philosophy if not merely one of many strange outgrowths of philosophical activity which has simply become fixated in our current collective mindset.  The Greeks define philosophy as ‘the love of wisdom’ while the Indians call it ‘darshana’: seeing.  But what does this seeing and love of wisdom actually involve and what had it amounted to in its relative origins? 

The answer is simple really, this is especially so when looking at the early and later Greek philosophers, who in our western tradition we see as the original initiators of science and philosophy.  These early philosophers when put together, including the pre-Socratics such Thales, Anaxagoras, Pathagoras,  right up to Aristotle and Democritus, together studied all aspects of life as a multidisciplinary whole. This included speculations on physics, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, ontology, biology etc… The one unifying factor running through these various studies, many of which have now become separate fields of study, is the use of rational discourse and abstract concepts; the essence of philosophy.  

Today philosophy has been divorced from the study of the natural world, from science; yet, this was not always so and need not always be so.  Furthermore it is better to say that philosophy has always included a discourse applicable to science, yet the field of philosophy itself has always transcended science as it has a much broader purview and agenda.  I might simplify this broad purview and agenda as simply the sustained and rational study of being and humankind's relation to being, and it is from this sustained study that various thinkers have followed premises to various conclusions and hypotheses about humankind and the world, some of which have taken a life of their own due to their instrumental value and these branches have evolved into what we now call science.  

So in effect science is one of the many golden eggs laid by the proverbial goose of philosophy.  Not only has this discipline continued to inspire hypothesis in current scientific fields but if it is kept alive it may spawn new ideas that evolve into other equally or more valuable fiends of study than what currently have.  While all of this shows the value of philosophy and the dept that the sciences owes to it, the sciences can also aid philosophy by providing other sources of information by which to challenge the conclusions that philosophical processes give us. 

None the less, keeping with the spirit of Heidegger's words, the value of philosophy still transcends these benefits that it has given us, since the practice of philosophy has the power to change ourselves and the world around us by the way that the exploration of being opens us to new ways of understanding ourselves and our relation to the world. 

Heidegger writes:

It is absolutely correct and proper to say that "You can't do anything with philosophy." 
It is only wrong to suppose that this is the last word on philosophy.  For the rejoinder imposes itself: granted that we cannot do anything with philosophy; might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us? So much for what philosophy is not"

Upon further reflection, I found this particular point rather striking.  For myself, it illustrates the spiritual poverty of the past few centuries onward in that it suggests that we are primarily preoccupied looking for validity in external applications of ideas in exclusion to the internal self transformative effects that one's awareness and thought processes can have on one's being.  Here, Heidegger is setting up a platform for philosophy as a means for personal transformation, and dare I say, a path of initiation into the fabric of ones very being.

Continuing my read of Heidegger we can see that he discusses how the West at large lost it's spiritual contact with being through the degradation of our language as we began translating Greek philosophical concepts into Latin and then in the common European languages. Later on in his work he shows this linguistic shift and it's consequences to be instrumental in the demise of human authenticity, in effect our movement away from being.  Later in his book he identifies this exclusion of being from our consciousness with the current European social malaise in the midst the industrial revolution and the events leading up to WW II.  

While I tend to be incredulous to insinuations of a more golden age in regard to our language and our relation to being, there is also something about the spirit in which he writes this that resonates with my overall nausea in the face of constant commercials, slogans, and general misuse of words that has made itself known in pop culture.  This sense of a degradation in our language and the way it is used does make a strong case for itself with the over all trend in how American political candidates communicate to the public.  The fact of the matter is the around election time there seems to be almost no authentic communication with the public: words no longer convey meaning and intention other than to distract and arouse strong emotion.  But lets get back to Heidegger and the exploration of our relationship to being, since it may be the key as to why philosophy itself has become somewhat of a dead discipline.

According to Heidegger's narrative, the age of the earliest and crucial unfolding of Western philosophy among the Greeks, who first raised the authentic question of the essent as such in its entirety, the essent was called physis.  This basic Greek word for the essent is customarily translated as 'nature'.  This derives from the Latin translation, natura, which properly means 'to be born,' 'birth.'  He goes into further detail with the following: 

"Unfortunately, with this Latin tranlsation the original meaning of the Greek work physis is thrust aside, the actual philosophical force of the Greek word is destroyed.  This is true not only of the Latin translation of this word but of all other Roman translations of the Greek philosophical language.  What happened in this translation from the Greek into the Latin is not accidental and harmless; it marks the first stage in the process by which we cut ourselves off and alienated ourselves from the original essence of Greek philosophy."  

So it is here where he identifies this linguistic shift in our philosophical awareness and perhaps it is here where philosophy started to lose touch with its much broader and transformative agenda.

He continues to reflect that the Roman translation was later taken over by Christianity in the Christian Middle ages.  And the Christian Middle Ages were prolonged in modern philosophy, which, moving in the conceptual world of the Middle Ages, coined those representations and terms by means of which we still try to understand the beginnings of Western philosophy...

Furthermore, he identifies how this alienation from the essence of Greek philosophy has been entrenched in the coinage of terms developed in the middle ages which then form the back drop of our language and apprehension of being today.  

Add this point he adds some interesting insights about the meaning, value, and role of language and even echoes the Qabalistic  and Vedic sages in attributing to language and words a certain power to bring things into being. i.e. manifestation. Note that the Qabalists and those of the Purva Mimamsa school of orthodox Hindu philosphy also assert that it was through the arrangement of letters and words that the universe came into being. 

"But now let us skip over this whole process of deformation and decay and attempt to regain the unimpaired strength of language and words; for words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak.  It is in words and language that things first come into being and are.  For this reason the misuse of language in idle talk, in  slogans and phrases, destroys our authentic relation to things."

I found this statement to be very profound and to echo an old sentiment found in asian philosophy as well... many traditions in Asia such as Sunyata, Chan, and Tien Tai schools of Buddhism eschew what is called 'idle talk'.  Today we are bombarded with idle talk in both our public and private lives. Everything is about selling, misleading, and distracting, and we have been talking in this manner so long that we are rarely aware of the fact that 60-80% of our speech and thought is empty, a lie, devoid of meaning, only having instrumental value to 'keep things rolling' to keep the factory running.  Is it any wonder that philosophy, genuine philosophy rather than intellectual fadism is almost dead?

Finally, Heidegger begins to identify the meaning of 'physis' as it can be understood in the context of the Greek language and thought:

"What does the word physis denote? It denotes self-blossoming emergence (e.g. the blossoming of  a rose), opening up, unfolding, that which manifests itself in such unfolding and perseveres and  endures in it; in short, the real of things that emerge and linger on.  According to the dictionary phyein means to grow or make to grow.  But what does growing mean? Does it imply only to increase quantitatively, to become more and larger?"

Later he adds...

"The Greeks did not learn what physis is through natural phenomenon, but the other way around: it was through a fundamental poetic and intellectual experience of being that they discovered what they had to call physis.  It was this discovery that enabled them to gain a glimpse into nature in the  restricted sense.  Hence physis originally encompassed heaven as well as earth, the stone as well as the plant, the animal as well as man, and it encompassed human history as a work of men and the gods; and ultimately and first of all, it meant the gods themselves as subordinated to destiny.  Physis means the power that emerges and the enduring realm under its sway.  This power of emerging and enduring includes 'becoming'; as well as 'being' in the restricted sense of inert duration.  Physis is the process of a-rising, of emerging from the hidden, whereby the hidden is first made to stand."  

He adds:

"But this narrowing of physis in the direction of 'physics' did not occur in the way that we imagine today.  We oppose the psychic, the animated, the living to the 'physical.'  But for the Greeks all this belonged to physis and continued to do so even after Aristotle."

He later identifies how this much broader and profound view of life, being in it's totality has been degraded only to observable and measurable 'nature' in it's most mundane sense and how we have lost touch with our awareness of being and ourselves as we identify with this dead world which is really a misconception or a misapprehension... The Qabalists would call this the Qliphoth, the world of shells seducing the human away from his or her inner vision, their teleos, separating it and identifying it with the dead, the non being...And the persian poet Rumi once wrote: 'You were born with wings. Why do you choose to crawl?'

On further reflection of this reading and my previous thoughts, I might add that today we see a peculiar form of cognitive dissonance unique to the post enlightenment generations.  Of course this is not unique to our particular day and age since this has all been going on since the turn of the nineteenth century.  Today the new physics has loosened this stubourness to a certain point, but there are still too many rational thinkers who take scientific truths to necessarily be universal truths, while the very founders of modern science especially the positivists, and better the revised positivists such as Karl Popper had no such idea. 

Building further on this I might argue that real scientific knowledge is true only in the moment, and the practice of science is more of a phenomenology whose very essence should be a process of dialectic between the subject and the object as they mutate through the infinite course of time and space.  Meanwhile metaphysics and ontology have been taken away from philosophy while people claiming to represent science are breaking their own rules by speaking about things beyond their plane of authority.  Most people forget that science really is the result of a decision brought about by philosophical investigations as can be seen starting with Thales investigation into the fundamental matter of the world and onward.  

So going back to Heidegger's original question of what is philosophy, I would venture that it is essentially a rational path toward initiation, being the process of encountering the nature and powers of one's own being which inevitably leads to a transformation of the self.  

Hindu philosophers in the Nyaya schools often depicts philosophy as a pragmatic endeavor and if we accept some of the prior assertions we would be pressed to agree.  However the Nyaya spokespersons often narrow down the praxis of philosophy as centered around the cessation of suffering in, that is intended to lead one to moksha or liberation from the wheel of birth and rebirth: the psychological roller coaster of those individuals who cling the notion of a world filled with dead matter, mere copies of the logos, while Heidegger's is both suggesting and inviting us to explore the world of being as dynamic and unfolding, beautiful reality which is at the heart of the physical world that so fascinates us.  

I would say that it is safer to keep the agenda of philosophy in the realm of the exploration of being and the transformation of ones being, and in this one may find a degree of transcendence; while the question of ending suffering in my opinion is still left largely to further investigation.

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  1. Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for this really enjoyed the tour through some of Heidegger's thought, it's always good for me to gain more of a grip on his stuff... Some of my stuff might resonate with you: https://garethhgeorge.wordpress.com going to look at your sceptics post next ....