Two Letters on the Nature of Philosophy

The following is a copy of two messages I sent to someone that formed part of a longer and quite varied exchange of ideas by e-mail. This exchange touched on a fairly wide variety of topics, and took place a number of years ago. The first is my response to a question on what I took "philosophy" to be. The second was a reply to a later message in which he accused me of being dogmatic, among other things. I unfortunately no longer have any of the correspondence besides these two messages from my end.

Hi ___,

The word philosophy, as you probably know, comes from the fusion of the the Greek roots ‘philos’, meaning love and ‘sophia’, meaning wisdom – so, “the love of wisdom” is the definition of philosophy that the word itself suggests, and I think this is actually a rather good definition, and one that carries a fair bit of insight. 

To understand what it means to love wisdom, it is perhaps useful to begin by contrasting each of these terms with seemingly similar concepts. Beginning with wisdom, it is important to recognize that ‘wisdom’ means something more than just ‘knowledge’, ‘understanding’, ‘’reason’, etc. although all of these concepts do of course come into play with regard to wisdom in at least some way.

What is it that sets wisdom apart from mere knowing, etc? I think this has a lot to do with a level of mastery, a level of maturity, and a level of well-rounded universality. To be wise it is not enough just to have a broad range of understanding and knowledge, but more than that, broadness must become a defining quality of one’s entire approach to understanding and knowledge. There is a difference between being well-rounded because of one’s range of understanding, and having the sort of general broad openness of mind that is able approach all aspects of one’s knowledge base in an integrative sort of way – this is the difference between getting a sense of the big picture because of the way one is able to piece many small pictures together versus being able to construct the big picture by the way in which one is able to look at all of its component parts in a sort of universal context – the difference between merely being able to draw connections between disparate aspects of one’s comprehension and being able to fundamentally relate to any particular aspect of that comprehension in the context of its connection to the rest.

I think this point is significant in understanding the fundamental connection between wisdom and self-mastery -  to be able to approach all in a fundamentally integrative context cannot but go hand-in-hand with being able to integrate all that one learns at the point of individuality/consciousness in the sense of turning understanding/knowledge, etc. towards individual mastery, maturity, responsibility, morality, etc.

One can be smart without being a good person, but one cannot be wise without being a good person, because to fail to develop justice/compassion/virtue/etc. means that one fails to develop the capacity for self-integration, through which sort of capacity alone one can also learn to integrate one’s understanding/knowledge/etc. into that something more which is a wise outlook on life, the universe and everything. Integration of comprehension cannot but go hand-in-hand with integrity of character.

 

As for love, love is one of those ubiquitous words that has been used for such a wide range of concepts ranging all the way from the sublime to the vulgar with everything in between, that it can be rather difficult to ascertain just what the fundamental character of love may come down to. Obviously, to love is more than just to like. But some things that pass for love, such as human sympathy (which can rest on accepting people for what they are to the extent of deifying their negative traits and attributes) can incorporate so much that goes counter to the grain of true compassion that such emotions are actually closer to the opposite of love as they are to the real deal.

 

So, what sets love apart from all that may pass for it? I think the most crucial point in this regard has to do with attachment. Love has been described as “the cohesive power of the universe”, and in the Bible it is referred to as “the bond of perfectness,” while at the same time a lot of the limited human concepts that stand in the place of love fail because of the way in which one’s negative/limited/worldly attachments get thrown into the mix of one’s would-be pure emotions.

 

Love in the genuine sense of the word, then, seems to have everything to do with attachment, connectiveness, unity, etc. and yet is fundamentally spoiled by the attachment/clingyness/sense of possession/etc. that you throw into it. To love, then, in some way or another, has to do with a surrendering of attachments and preconceptions in order to open yourself up to attachment and connectedness, etc.

 

This is an interesting concept when one thinks about it, and it is important with regard to an understanding of what it means to develop a philosophical outlook on life – to surrender the absolutes of one’s human certainties in order to gain certainty of universal absolutes, for instance.

 

I think this sort of a way at looking at the notion also makes clear the essential relation between philosophy and truth. I’ve spent a lot of time in philosophy classes and the whole academic culture of philosophy, and I cannot help but be disillusioned at the way in which philosophy as a discipline of striving after truth has come to be replaced by a notion of philosophy as a discipline of examining and delighting in interesting or novel ideas. For sure, ideas are the building blocks of philosophy, but it is not enough just to come up with something interesting, or to examine any and all trains of thought just for their flash appeal, or to develop whole systems of thought just for the sake of developing a system.

 

Philosophy, in order to be a constructive endeavor, needs to have a unifying principle, and this unifying principle has to do with a belief in truth as an objective sort of ideal that can be and ought to be striven towards. To believe that there is a such a thing called truth is to take an objective stance towards life, the universe and everything, and such a stance is the primary step in the development of the discipline of philosophy (which is a discipline both in the sense of a field of study and in the sense of an exercise in self-mastery). To take an objective stance towards life is also to measure one’s life against an objective standard.

 

Anyways, I hope these reflections are of some use and interest to you. The specific s of this little blurb are not something well-established, but rather my immediate attempt to provide a response to your question, but the general ideas behind it are of course something I have been dealing with and trying to develop for some time.

 

All the best,

-Frans

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Hi ___,

I like your letter, some very nicely expressed ideas and somewhat of an impassioned defense of rationalism in a way. We kind of seem to be on a cycle, where we seem to diverge from each other in our views in quite considerable ways and then come back to a realization of just how closely our views actually do line up in their broad outlines. It’s kind of cool, kind of how such a discussion should go I think.

I will begin by responding to your first two paragraphs. You state that philosophy is about the intellect’s pursuit of truth, and then you say that what truth is is a process of discovery. I think there might be something circular here: defining philosophy as the pursuit of something and then defining that something as a process of discovery. I think at some point there has to be a firm objective peg on which to hang one’s ideas, one’s definitions and one’s worldview. In my opinion this requires a belief in the ultimate objectivity and universality of truth. The pursuit of truth may indeed be a process of discovery, but I think this actually implies that that truth itself must be something more concrete. I also disagree with your throwing in this word “intellect” in your definition of philosophy. Philosophy, I think, is the pursuit of truth, not just by the intellect, but by one’s whole being. I think you kind of lean in the same direction when you subsequently say that being a philosopher requires a keen sense of wonder. I think wonder is more than a merely intellectual sort of thing (it cannot be a purely intellectual experience in a way). A sense of wonder and awe and respect and all of that sort of thing betokens an engagement with truth and with life that is more than just intellectual. This does not take away from the importance of the intellect, but I think the intellect itself only reaches its real power when it plays out in the context of the full picture. It is very easy to become limited by the intellect, even inasmuch as the intellect is perhaps one’s primary tool in the quest to escape limitation. I think this also gets back to our original definition of philosophy not just as the pursuit of truth but as the love of truth (philia-sophia). Can the intellect taken purely in and of itself love, respect and relate in awe to something? Is it possible to love, respect and relate in awe to something that one does not grant a universal, objective status but rather tries to conceptualize purely in terms of a process?

You take the intellect and intellectual processes and add in the mix of an emotional sort of full-being response and responsivity (not emotional in the sense of human emotions, but emotional in the sense in which love, wonder, awe and respect for the truth imply) and you open the way to intuition and revelelation. This word revelation is not intended to be construed in a directly religious sort of sense. I believe elements of the truth can be intuited, they can be revealed to us, they can manifest through a sort of spontaneous insight, and they can be grasped through an intellectual process. And really this whole spectrum is essential to the philosophical life, I think. That we can relate to truth and that truth can relate to us in the way that we do and the way that it does is a function of what each is in the universal scheme of things. This is why the question ‘What is truth?’ is such an important one, and one that is very closely interconnected with questions like ‘What am I?’ and ‘What is consciousness?’ and ‘What is the purpose of life, the universe and everything?’

You say that critical thought is a virtue and you imply that virtue can come out of critical thought (“the philosopher moves in the direction of the good through questioning and contemplating anything and evrything”). This is true insofar an you conceive of ‘critical thought’ as being critical to how you think, not as being critical of truth per se. You also need to be critical of how you relate to life, without allowing yourself to become critical towards life, and you need to be critical to how you conceive of life’s purpose without being critical of purpose and the way in which it plays itself out in your life per se. A critical, sceptical and questioning attitude can be a sign of open-mindedness, creativity and flexibility, or a critical and sceptical disposition can actually begin to function as a form of closed-mindedness in and of itself. It may seem counter-intuitive to think of being critical as a form of being stuck in one’s ways, but it really can be. We live in a very critical society that seems to be very disinclined to accept anything as ultimately true, or to accept anything as being of genuine value, and this is in fact an indication of a rigidity of mind that comes from an absence of love/respect/awe for truth and for life. It comes from an ‘intellect’ that has lost its grounding in ‘being’. An intellect that is grounded in being, on the other hand, is a powerful tool in its reassesing of things in such a manner as to foster a creative, personal, open and felxible reponse and position. It is therefore definately true, as you say, that “carrying a philosophical disposition, or being animated by philosophy, makes one cognitively flexible.”

You seem in this and your previous letter to want to accuse me of being dogmatic, and this is a charge I take seriously, as I consider myself to be as much at enmity with a dogmatic disposition as you are. It is, for sure, the antithesis of a philosophical mind, as you say. I think an individual can be as dogmatic in his holding of a conviction of an absence of universal truth as one can be dogmatic in one’s holding onto one’s conviction of a particular tenet that one conceives of as true. It has to do with the difference between espousing genuine open-mindedness, flexibility and creativity or not. I think being of a disposition that is inclined to be grouded in principle can actually be an essential defense against dogmatism at the same time as holding onto those principles in the wrong way can open the door to dogmatism. To be genuinely open-minded, one’s mind has to be open to the impression upon it of the spirit of truth, and the impressions that truth and its spirit make upon one’s mind can manifest as a firm (albeit not therefore inflexible) attachment to principles.

Anyways, enough for now. I will try to respond to the rest of your message later, or repond to your response to this response. Also, if you really think I am being dogmatic or set to conversing “in terms imposed by Christianity,” this is something it might be good to deal with head on. If so, please respond with a very direct (and scathing, if you will) indictment, and I will prepare a defense.

All the best,

Frans