An Apology for Naive Philosophy
D. R. Khashaba
The following sketchy note will be found by many ambiguous and by many more wrong-headed. I offer it as a provocation and a challenge, no more.
If Socrates were to come back into our world and were invited to partake of the rich fare offered by our present-day philosophy departments with their numerous and continuously increasing disciplines, I believe that he would answer with words similar to those Plato makes him say, though in a different context: “I have no leisure for such inquiries. Because, my friend, I am unable yet to comply with the Delphian injunction to know myself. It would be ludicrous, while ignorant of this, to examine things which are not my concern. I leave such inquiries alone and, instead, examine myself.” [See Phaedrus, 229e-230a.] Not that he would belittle these sophisticated disciplines and studies, but he would simply say, as he said of physical inquiries in the ‘autobiographical’ passage in the Phaedo, that they are not his concern. For in that passage, Socrates draws a line between inquiry into nature, which is the concern of science, and the examination of one’s own mind, which is the proper concern of philosophy. He considers these as two completely independent domains.
You might say that Socrates should find in such a discipline as the philosophy of mind, with or without the support of neuroscience, something answering to his quest for self-knowledge. No, Socrates would say; the philosophy of mind makes of mind an object to be known by observation and objective analysis. The self-knowledge sought by Socrates is a probing within one’s soul — to use the word Socrates would have used but which has now become suspect, a probing of the subject and not of the object. Philosophy of mind, no less than psychology as it is now studied, no less than neuroscience, is a science that may give us much valuable objective knowledge, even knowledge about ourselves, but does not give us any understanding of ourselves.
What if Socrates were asked what he thought about Experimental Philosophy? Let me answer for him: Nothing in human life or human activity is clear-cut and hermetically sealed. (I am not contradicting what I said above.) So I will not say that the ‘experimental philosophy’ has no connection with philosophy. But it is not of the essence of philosophy. In philosophy proper we probe ourselves, we examine our values, and, most importantly, our presuppositions. A ‘philosophical experiment’ just like any chance event in life, may shock us into looking at a dormant or a gloomy nook of our thought. But it is not the ‘philosophical experiment’ or the outcome of the experiment that is philosophy; it is the incidentally triggered reflection and self-examination. A philosopher can derive as much good from observing and experimenting as he can from taking a good walk or a refreshing swim — positive good, no doubt; but equally accidental in both cases; it does not mean we may turn philosophy into a science: that way we lose much more than we gain.
But Plato, you might say, did not stop short at Socratic self-examination. He soared high into metaphysics. True. Plato caught from Parmenides the yearning for absolute reality. But where did he find absolute reality? Ultimately in the Form of the Good, which is nothing but our idea and our ideal of the highest goodness and the highest understanding. An idea and an ideal. When ‘Socrates’ is asked in the Republic to say what the Form of the Good is, he takes refuge in allegory. Plato knew that the reality sought by the philosopher is not be found outside of us and that the reality within us cannot be objectified except in allegory and myth — allegory and myth which the mind must create because that is its means to be in touch with its inner reality but must also destroy to remain free of superstition. In the Republic Plato relegates all natural science to the lower segment of the higher division of the Divided Line. He knew that any objective knowledge that presumed to transcend the shadows of the phenomenal world is illusion. That is my reading of the Republic Books V-VII, which is the crown of Plato’s philosophy in my view. If it sounds enigmatic in this condensed paragraph, my excuse is that what I tried to expound in book after book cannot be put more clearly in a few lines.
To return to the topic of sophisticated and naïve philosophy, I would say that what is presented in philosophy departments of universities today may be very good science but it is as far removed from philosophy as biology or astrophysics. Indeed, the best philosophy today may be found in literary essays, in fiction, in poetry, but not in academic dissertations on philosophy, least of all in academic dissertations on Plato and his philosophy.
Every time I see philosophy defined as the science of this or the science of that, I feel enraged. The sciences pursued by academic philosophers study the object, even if that object is the mind objectified; philosophy proper examines the subject, is concerned with our inner reality.
D. R. Khashaba