Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The inescapable indulgence of philosophy

Homunculus drawing s

If you are not in the mood for reading a rant, please, kindly, move along to some calmer, more edifying post.

OK, so, for those of you who are reckless with you blood pressure, the topic of today’s rant is, yet again, the “Faith and Reason” section of the the “Our Faith on Sunday” leaflet that now accompanies my parish’s newsletter (for a previous run in with it see here). This time the topic is none other than philosophy, and it gets disposed of in less than 150 words.1 You’d think that those few words would have to be carefully chosen to say anything meaningful about a complex topic like this. Yet, instead, the opening words are the following:
“Every person will at some stage in life indulge that inescapable curiosity which seeks answers to philosophical questions; even small children exhibit impressive levels of philosophical inquiry when, during the so called ‘Why Stage’, they demonstrate an insatiable desire to know the causes of things.”
The unidentified author of the above wisdom then drops gems like: “[h]ow articulate and explicit each person’s philosophical investigation is will depend on circumstances,” “there is in human nature a questioning quality, an irresistible urge to find out” and “although no single philosophical system can claim to give us a complete account of reality, some do reflect it more fully than others.”

Two words: WOW! Where do you even start in the face of such platitudes and inanity? First, let’s just spell out what the above actually implies about philosophy:
  1. The opening line makes philosophy sound like sneezing, a temporary infatuation with Brad Pitt or the onset of puberty. It makes philosophy seem like something that may one day overcome you, out of the blue. You’ll have no control over it and you’ll just have to indulge it. But, don’t worry - it will pass …

  2. Philosophy may also have the hallmarks of a disease - how serious its symptoms will be in your case (and at some point it will wash over you for sure) depends “on circumstances.” It would have been useful to get at least at hint of what it is about “circumstances” that may make a philosophy attack more or less severe. Is it open spaces, high altitudes, allergens or the presence of nanosphere complexes that one should watch for?

  3. The paragon of philosophical activity is a small child asking “why?”. Having actually been at the receiving end of barrages of “why”s by small children (and having greatly enjoyed the game), I am therefore inferring that the purpose of philosophy is entertainment, attention-seeking and maybe in 1/10 of its instances an actual desire for an answer. [Well, this one may not be that far off :)]

  4. You may find this hard to believe, but some philosophical systems reflect reality more fully than others … Mind. Blown. I would love to see the unidentified author of this gem of a treatise on philosophy sketch out how one might go about determining the extent to which a given philosophical system reflects reality. Maybe we could have a star rating in next week’s newsletter. (Dialectical materialism: x stars, Neoplatonism: y stars, Deconstructivism: z stars … You didn’t think I’d actually assign specific values, did you?)
“It is easy to be critical,” I hear you think. So, let me show you how I would use a ~100 word limit to talk about philosophy (and I’d do so by letting another, far better qualified mind, speak):
“Men and women have at their disposal an array of resources for generating greater knowledge of truth so that their lives may be ever more human. Among these is philosophy [meaning “love of wisdom”], which is directly concerned with asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it. Philosophy emerges, then, as one of noblest of human tasks [… and] shows in different modes and forms that the desire for truth is part of human nature itself. […] Through philosophy’s work, the ability to speculate […] produces a rigorous mode of thought; and then in turn, through the logical coherence of the affirmations made and the organic unity of their content, it produces a systematic body of knowledge.” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio)

1 I owe it at least to my überbestie MR (née MM) to rush to the defense of philosophy. Not that it is being attacked particularly efficaciously here, but an attack is an attack and this one is bringing the game into disrepute … its a matter of principle!