A Note on the Philosopher (3/6/15)

“Gilbert Ryle once observed that it is a fiction encouraged by historians of ideas that philosophers have certain doctrines or tenets; real philosophers think continuously, and the ‘tenets’ in the history books are obtained by artificially arresting the process of their thought.”—Shakespeare the Thinker; A.D. Nuttall


It may be said that the philosopher strives to map the irreducible and irrational whole that is the totality of consciousness. The difference between the genuine philosopher and most other thinkers is that: he knows (1) that map is to territory what shadows are to substance. He knows (2) that what he is mapping are elements of consciousness and not things that are somehow independent of the consciousness of the mapper. (3) Because his time and energy are not unlimited—a nuanced, detailed map of some particular zone or region of the experienceable whole is attained, to some extent, at the expense of sketching the general contours of other experienceable regions. (4) That which is being mapped is neither fixed nor static, but alive and ever-transforming—like the sea or the weather. Therefore, whatever principles he derives from his experience of this inherently mutable whole are necessarily provisional, heuristic, and fictive in nature. (5) Those who assert that the whole is rational are asserting more than they can know. They are, in fact, superimposing a rational structure or framework (that they have inherited or invented) upon a seething, surging array of ever-metamorphosing modes of consciousness that, because they are alive, cannot be reduced to fixed rational terms.

Those determined seekers after philosophical truth who are driven primarily by a yearning for rational-demonstrative certitude will either become stubborn deniers of the claims I have just made—in which case it is to be doubted that they will ever become genuine philosophers. Alternatively, they will have to overcome their obsession with this reduced, ‘human-sized’ mode of formulating their ‘findings,’ at which point they become viable candidates for the philosophical life.

We are certainly entitled to wonder if philosophizing that dispenses, at the outset, with axiomatic, rational grounds for itself can still, with justice, be called ‘philosophy.’ Regularities, recurring elements, and familiar patterns do not constitute, by themselves, the abstract rationality (say, of mathematics and geometry) with which philosophy became romantically entangled while it was still a callow teenager. May it be said, then, that genuine (‘mature’) philosophy reverts back to a form of mythology—albeit one with a difference? Is it mythology that is sharply aware of itself as mythology? Who knows? Perhaps in this attempt at conscious reconciliation, both traditional mythology and critical philosophy gain something in the exchange—instead of remaining either antithetical or conflated.

The Western religions (from the Levant) also seem to have committed a ‘false grounding’ blunder, as well. In founding themselves upon concrete, historical persons, events, and literally-regarded texts (e.g., Abraham, Moses, the Covenant, Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, Muhammad and his Koran), don’t they exalt the finite and the particular above the infinite and the irreducible whole? Insofar as this occurs in the literalizing minds of dogmatic believers, don’t they unconsciously succumb to a form of idolatry, just as traditional philosophy does in its hypostatization of abstract rational principles, exalting them above ‘raw’ consciousness and life, which are nothing if they are not irrational, irreducible, and contemptuous of all our limited and limiting ‘containers’ and formulations—including this one?

Thus, the genuine philosopher has nowhere to stand—and everywhere to swim.

In fact, it may be said that the aim of philosophizing is always to get beyond philosophizing—much as the aim of eating is to terminate the hunger that prompts us to eat in the first place. Eating simply for the sake of eating easily degenerates into a kind of vice—and thinking simply for the sake of entertaining the mind with various thoughts may also be regarded as a species of idleness, or self-indulgence. Moderate, regular eating silences the hunger—just as moderate, meditative-reflective thinking helps to silence, while it nourishes, the restless mind.


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