Saturday, June 26, 2010

Philosophy, Results, Kierkegaard and Socrates

In his recent article in the Fortnightly Review, Philosophy as a personal journey., Anthony O'Hear reflects on the meaning for philosophy that it has been unable to produce "results" with respect to its most fundamental questions:

But, and here is a second worry, given that, notoriously, most of the big disputes in philosophy remain unresolved – and have been unresolved since the time of the ancient Greeks who first raised them in systematic form – what can we actually learn from philosophy?

It is in light of the failure of philosophy to produce results that O'Hear develops his interpretation of philosophy as a personal journey. This is his last paragraph:

Of course, some of the people who write and practice philosophy in these ways will see their tightly focused work as contributing to a larger vision, but it seems to me that the overall direction is false to the true nature of the subject. And although we can all agree that our endeavours are directed to the truth, and guided by reasons and arguments that bear on the truth of what each of us believes, we each have to face the fact that we will not achieve complete rational convergence on premisses, because it is not there to be achieved. Nor will we come to a set of truths which will be so evident that they will command the assent of all who embark on the journey and pursue it in a rational and reasonable manner, aiming as best they can to seek the truth. It is just this picture which our earlier considerations on the nature and history of philosophical disagreement seem to undermine. In the beginning and at the end, philosophy is a personal journey, crucial to the examined life Socrates thought so integral to human flourishing.

I am afraid that, as edifying as I find O'Hear's article, I cannot agree with this paragraph. In fact, I think the paragraph clearly contradicts itself. On the one hand, O'Hear tells us that we cannot arrive at a set of truths that will command the assent of the rational and the reasonable. On the other hand, he proposes just this truth as one that every reasonable man should accept as the basis of philosophy. In other words, the proposal that "philosophy cannot arrive at a set of truths that will command the assent of the reasonable" is itself a purported reasonable truth that the proposal denies.

O'Hear's proposal is of the type that formed the original basis of Enlightenment philosophy, and was exposed by Kierkegaard (and, through him, Socrates) as failing to respect the true nature of subjectivity. Enlightenment philosophers concluded, like O'Hear, that the long history of philosophy proved the futility of the classical philosophical approach. Rather than continuing the fruitless dialog, they imagined various ways to found philosophy anew, from the rationalism of Descartes to the empiricism of Hume. But what all the Enlightenment philosophers failed to recognize is that if knowledge as it had been traditionally conceived was not possible, then their knowledge of the futility of philosophy was also not possible. Remember, it was their alleged conclusion to the futility of philosophy that justified their breaking with tradition and creating a new foundation to philosophy. Their knowledge of the futility of philosophy was therefore both logically and temporally prior to the "new" knowledge they arrived at through their new methods. To take a specific case, Descartes in the beginning of the Discourse on Method discusses his reasons for abandoning classical philosophy and inventing the Method; reasons that, naturally, refer to the futility of philosophy. But as soon as the Method of universal doubt is proposed, then Descartes' doubt of classical philosophy should also be subject to doubt. But it never is; like O'Hear, the futility of philosophy is the one non-futile result that Descartes knows in the old-fashioned way.

Socrates has not been improved on in his understanding of ignorance. If I am ignorant - and surely I am if philosophy is futile - then I am ignorant. Whether anyone else is ignorant, or whether everyone throughout history was necessarily ignorant (as Englightenment-inspired philosophers suppose), must be one of the things of which I am ignorant. This is the authentic Socratic way in which subjectivity enters philosophy and true philosophy is born; and it is the way philosophy is born in all philosophers following the Socratic tradition. When Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder, he doesn't mean only or even primarily that the historical origin of philosophy happened when certain men of leisure began to wonder. He means that philosophy is only alive to the extent that it is born in wonder in each individual soul. It is one thing to speculate about the nature or reality of final causes as an abstract problem that has no necessary relation to my life; quite another to recognize that the question of final causes, if truly asked, must primarily involve the question of the final cause of my own being. If I have a final cause, which means a purpose that informs my existence whether I recognize it or not, then this cause judges every moment of my existence - including the moments when I speculate about final causes.

This, I believe, is the primary lesson of Plato's Crito. Socrates is in prison and is told by Criton that all the arrangements have been made for Socrates to escape prison and repair to another city, where he would be welcomed and could continue to philosophize. The guards are sympathetic and the populace generally recognizes the injustice of his conviction. But Socrates will have none of it. He recognizes the truth of his subjectivity with respect to the laws of Athens. It doesn't matter whether, in an abstract sense, the jury decided his case correctly. Justice for Socrates means that he must respect the decision of the jury whatever it is. Were he to avail himself of the opportunity to escape, and continue to "philosophize" in another city, his philosophy would be reduced to a language game, and himself to a comic figure, spending his time in apparently serious conversations about justice, when he has made it clear that whatever he thinks about justice, it doesn't include justice for Socrates.

In what sense, then, can philosophy have "results"? Not in the sense that it can produce answers that must be recognized by any rational person, if by "rational" we mean the existentially indifferent "objective" reason characteristic of modernity. But it can produce answers that are true for everyone and for all time, if we acknowledge that those answers will be recognized only by those who have first absorbed the subjective truth necessary to philosophize; or, in Kierkegaard's words, if they have become subjective thinkers.

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