What is philosophy? There are so many definitions of philosophy. It is not altogether unlikely that the “What is…?” question is not the best way to approach a definition of philosophy. There are many other important questions for defining and describing philosophy. Who are philosophers? What do philosophers do? How does one become a philosopher? How, where, and when does philosophy happen? If you want to keep the question of being (ti esti, “What is”), maybe you could at least pluralize or verbalize philosophy, so that “What is philosophy?” becomes “What are philosophies?” or “What is philosophizing?” (“What are philosophizings?”). In any case, all of these questions hover around the same point. Whatever philosophy is/does, it seems particularly involved in defining itself, maintaining itself, like it has to keep turning on the engine in order to keep driving, continually initiating itself, bringing itself back to itself. In short, philosophizing maintains a constant connection to its own beginning. Philosophy is perpetually preparatory, programmatically provisional. Continue reading
Despite exaggerated claims about the disenchantment of the world in the modern age, religious traditions and esoteric spirituality never went away, which is not to say that the persistence of enchantment didn’t cause severe anxiety among some who wished that those things would go away. Among the persistent modes of enchantment is the practice of interpreting the meanings of heavenly bodies in relation to human affairs: astrology. Continue reading
Hegel gives an apt description of this salient difference between ancient and contemporary approaches to philosophical study. It basically goes like this. Under the weight of several centuries of tradition, philosophical study today finds ready-made theories and answers everywhere, a plethora of prefab homes for thinking. Whereas ancient philosophers learned to let a theory grow out of their concrete existence, the task today is the opposite: to free ourselves from our prefabricated principles and to impart to theory once again the enactive and enthusiastic energies of existence.
Here is the relevant passage:
The manner of study [Die Art des Studiums] in ancient times differed from that of the modern age in that the former was the proper and complete formation [Durchbildung] of the natural consciousness. Putting itself to the test at every point of its existence, and philosophizing about everything it came across, it made itself into a universality that was active through and through. In modern times [neuern Zeit], however, the individual finds the abstract form ready-made [vorbereitet]; the effort to grasp and appropriate it is more the direct driving-forth [Hervortreiben] of what is within and the truncated generation of the universal than it is the emergence [Hervorgehen] of the latter from the concrete variety of existence. Hence the task nowadays consists not so much in purging the individual of an immediate, sensuous mode of apprehension, and making him into a substance that is an object of thought that thinks, but rather in just the opposite, in freeing determinate thoughts from their fixity so as to give actuality [zu verwirklichen] to the universal and impart to it spiritual life [zu begeisten].
G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford University Press, 1977), 19-20. Phänomenologie des Gesistes (1806), ed. J. Hoffmeister (6th ed.; Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag, 1952), 30.
I’m doubling down on doing deconstruction, and apparently I’m doubling down on that phrase, “doubling down,” which I already said once (too much) in the title and have now used way too much at this point. I promise not to use it again here, but the excess is part of my point: an exercise in exorbitance, a propensity for verbosity…it’s all part of what draws me to deconstruction. There is something about the double movement, speaking in two directions at the same time, writing in a way that avoids the temptation to resolve ambiguity and paradox into something easily digested by normal opinion (doxa). That is stylistically interesting, like the apophatic rhetoric used in mysticism and negative theology. But it’s not only a matter of style. It’s never merely style for mystics and theologians either. The simultaneously inventive and destructive movement of deconstruction discloses something about wisdom, about the way things really are, about the basic orientation around which philosophy takes place. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Continue reading
Some people, a lot of people, treat René Descartes as a sort of bogeyman of modern philosophy. Somehow, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Descartes sundered the seamless fabric of Being into two factions, mind and body, a thinking thing and an extended thing, res cogitans and res extensa. With that dualism set in place, soul was thereby evacuated from the universe…except for a tiny piece of property that soul could rent out in the human head, accessed through a steep driveway in the pineal gland. In a universe devoid of soul, humans lost any motivation or justification for caring about anything beyond the solipsistic ego. Thanks a lot, René! There’s no concern for other humans, for community, or for the natural world. Mechanistic thinking thus spurred the rapacious destruction of ecosocial integrity through the development of industrial technologies and market economies. Now, as humans are sawing off the environmental limb that we’re sitting on, it’s more urgent than ever to overcome Cartesian dualism and find a way back into the seamless interconnectivity of existence. No, not really. Something is very wrong with that story. “In order to seek truth,” as Descartes says in his Principles of Philosophy, “it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” Well, one of the things of which I’m doubtful is the idea that dualism is what’s wrong with Descartes.
Pierre Hadot is well-known for his idea that philosophy is not a merely professional endeavor or simply a system of ideas but is a way of living, a practice for which one must engage in “exercise” or “training” (askēsis). That point is evident throughout Hadot’s writings, but it is especially emphasized in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Philosophy isn’t just about talking and thinking; it’s a way of being in the world. It’s not just a vocational choice; it’s an existential choice. It’s not just about ideas; it’s about one’s entire self. Hellenistic philosophy provides the bulk of Hadot’s examples of this kind of philosophy, and the figure of Socrates plays a prominent role for Hadot. Of course, an important part of the Socratic way of life is Socratic irony. Reading over notes from Adam Robbert’s recent panel presentation on this topic, it struck me: Hadot’s presentation of philosophy as a way of life includes a profound sense of irony: “Ye gods! Here we have the well-known irony of Hadot” (cf. Plato’s Republic, 337a). Continue reading