Saturday, March 8, 2008

Life's Private Book

The post on the First Things blog I commented on here gives me a chance to write about the title of my blog, Life's Private Book.

In the First Things blog, Stephen Barr draws a typically modern distinction between things he approaches through science and things he approaches through instinct. The approach through science is clearly one of reason; knowledge is an end (goal) that is taken to be at least possible to obtain. A scientific statement exists in the category of the true and false and discussion and criticism of it is possible; it may be revised in the light of publicly available evidence so that it may more accurately reflect the truth. An instinct, on the other hand, does not exist in the category of the true and false. It simply is. It doesn't make sense to ask a bird if its way of flying is true or false; it flies by instinct. Nor does it make sense to ask a dog how he discovers things through his sense of smell; he just smells by instinct. Modern thought has carried the notion of instinct into certain cognitive acts of the human mind. Stephen Barr, for example, refers to instinct in his understanding of beauty and the raising of children. Since these acts are, for Barr, instinctual, there is no true and false with respect to them. It is perhaps for this reason that Barr finds so many crackpots in the liberal arts.

The things he judges through instinct are, Barr says, the "human realities". We might also say that they are by far the most important realities. Certainly for a father, the best way to raise children is a question of paramount concern (and one that motivated many of the Socratic dialogs.) The "human realities" also include things like the nature of beauty, good and evil, the nature of the best life, the end of human existence, the difference between virtue and vice, and the true meaning of love, justice and friendship. In other words, the primary topics of classical philosophy. In the modern world, these are all finally taken to be matters of instinct; in other words, private matters about which no genuinely rational dialog is possible. The most we can do is exchange opinions about them, but we can't go beyond that. Whether one opinion about love is better than another is not a subject of rational determination. Only science provides us with a way to determine the truth and falsity of opinion, and science has nothing to say about the true meaning of love, justice and friendship. Or, when science does have something to say about love or friendship, the "love" or "friendship" it takes as its object undergoes a transformation that makes it unrecognizable as the human reality of love or friendship.

So our modern worldview is divided into two parts, a public part and a private part. I refer to them respectively as "Life's Public Book" and "Life's Private Book", the first based on science and the latter on instinct. The Public Book consists of everything we say publicly about the world and think we can rationally defend. The Private Book consists of that understanding of the world by which we actually live, which may contain elements of the Public Book but also likely contains many things we don't care to rationally defend or even think we can rationally defend (since it is the human realities by which we live, and they are a matter of instinct.) In the modern world, it is difficult to know anything about a man's Private Book from his Public Book; the philosophy he espouses in public may have nothing to do with how he actually lives. There is limited concern that the Public and Private books be consistent with each other. Thus an esteemed philosopher may proclaim in the lecture hall that traditional morality is a sham and only a way for the powerful to keep the weak in their chains, at the same time as he sends his own children to private schools where traditional morality is strictly enforced. Neither will he see anything embarrassing about the situation; his educational decisions for his children are "personal choices" in his "private life" and are not subject to the judgment of others.

I coined the terms "Public Book" and "Private Book" many years ago as a young man in college after taking several philosophy courses. I expected the courses to discuss the human realities like friendship, truth and justice, but they rarely did so and, when they did, it was in a peculiarly indirect manner, as though they were talking about them without talking about them. The professors and the students talked about truth and friendship, but only in an abstract way, as though it bore no reference to the truth and friendship they lived by when they left the lecture hall. I found the experience disturbing and frustrating and, after a lot of thought, came up with the Public Book and Private Book distinction to capture the phenomenon. The question that pressed on me was: Is it possible to think rationally about the Private Book or are we condemned to live by "instinct" or private opinion?

It wasn't until classical philosophy was genuinely opened to me that I learned that the answer is: Yes. The wonderful thing about reading Plato and Aristotle is that there is no distinction between their Public and Private books. The philosophy they discuss is not a matter of abstract theory but of how they actually live, as made manifest by Socrates in his death. Even without knowing any of the details of their lives, you can get a good feeling for the personalities of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle through their philosophy. Their Private Book is an open book. And the longer I study the classical philosophers and their modern critics, the more I become convinced that the classical philosophers were never really refuted, but merely contradicted.

I attempt to remain true to the example of the classical philosophers by discussing on this blog the philosophy by which I actually live (even if I fail to live up to it.) I call the blog "Life's Private Book" to remind myself that the basic test of philosophy is existential: If I am not willing to live by a principle I espouse, then it is not philosophical to espouse it, but rather a corruption of the quest to live philosophically.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


apropos living the life of wisdom, an excellent book is John Cooper's "Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus."