WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?
WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?
D. R. Khashaba
Philosophy has always meant different things to different people. Since the close of the nineteenth century the term has been applied to studies that neither Plato nor Aristotle would have found related to what either of them meant by philosophy.
There is nothing wrong of course with there being numerous diverse fields of thought with distinct methods and objects and objectives. But things go wrong when discipline A, misled by a community of name, finds fault with discipline B because it does not apply A’s methods or adopt its object and objectives. In science, for instance, it would be wrong for physicists to think that, because the ultimate constituents of living cells are such as physics studies, physics tells us all we need to know about living cells. In the case of the diverse disciplines claiming the title ‘philosophy’ (now wildly proliferating) this fault is rampant and is highly damaging. Philosophies modeled on empirical science have actually anathematized as nonsense. But the diversity of types of philosophical thinking is not a modern phenomenon.
In China and in India, in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, in Persia and among the Hebrews there was wisdom. But philosophy started in Ionia in the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean. Philosophy is first distinguished by being private; every philosopher thought for himself, pursuing questions that irked her or him, seeking solely to satisfy her or his own mind, claiming no authority and demanding no following.
The questions that the earliest philosophers sought answers for were diverse and varied and hence from the very start there were different types of philosophical pursuits. The first Milesian thinkers, Thales and Anaximander and Anaximenes seem to have puzzled about the ultimate constituents of all things and how the world has come to be as we find it. Xenophanes debunked the common vulgar notions about the gods. Heraclitus and Parmenides were interested in questions that have come to be designated metaphysical. Socrates looked into the ideas, ideals, values, and aims that govern human life and asked what life is best for a human being to live. Socrates’ philosophy was thus a philosophy of life and for life.
Plato, profoundly impressed by the character and moral stance of Socrates, was simultaneously deeply immersed in the questions that had engaged Heraclitus and Parmenides: What is real? What is ultimate Reality? Fusing Socrates’ moral interests with his metaphysical questionings, Plato developed a vision uf the philosophical life as the ideal life for a human being, involving a vision of ultimate Reality, and implying a distinctive view of the nature of philosophical thinking. This Platonic philosophy has sadly been misunderstood and ignored. In particular, learned scholarship has been guilty of making a travesty of it.
Let us stay a while with these two last-mentioned great thinkers. It is strictly impossible to draw a clear line between the thought of Socrates and the thought of Plato, but for the purposes of exposition it is unavoidable and perhaps not unhelpful to make a conjectural separation.
At his trial Socrates declares : “…while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy” (Jowett’s wording). How did he ‘teach philosophy’? By interrogating, questioning, examining, and cross-examining all he met. It is of vital importance to grasp the significance of this.
Socrates saw that we owe our distinctive human nature to our life and actions being governed by ideas, ideals, values, purposes all bred in the mind and having no being outside the mind. When these ideas, values, and purposes are confused, muddled, and entangled we go in life fumbling in the dark, not knowing what we are or what we are doing. This is the insight that Spinoza, twenty-two centuries later, was to express by saying that when we act on inadequate ideas we are not free. On the other hand, to be clear about our ideas, values, and purposes is to enjoy the proper virtue, the special excellence of a human being. That distinctive excellence, that proper virtue of a human being, Socrates referred to as that within us which is benefited by doing what is right and harmed by doing what is wrong. For short it may be named psuchê (soul) or nous (mind, reason). Consequently he held that, if life is not worth living with a diseased body, it is much less so with a diseased soul (Crito, 46b ff.).
Thus Socrates was exclusively concerned with the mind and the things of the mind. In the Phaedrus when Phaedrus asks him if he believes the popular legend of Boreas carrying Orithuia away, Socrates says:
“… I have no time for such things; and the reason, my friend, is this. I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that. … I look … into my own self: Am I a beast more complicated and savage than Typhon, or am I a tamer, simpler animal with a share in a divine and gentle nature?” (229e-230a, tr. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff)
Those things of the mind that were Socrates’ sole concern are intelligible as opposed to the perceptible things reported to us by our senses of the outer world including our body. In the Phaedo there is a most important passage of some half-a-dozen pages (95e-102a) that is strangely overlooked by professional philosophers and learned scholars. Responding to a difficulty raised by Cebes in the argument, Socrates says, “The whole question of the cause of generation and corruption will have to be examined.” He proceeds to give an account of his youthful wrestlinlings with the question. It turns out that in the end he had to renounce all search for physical causes which, he found, cannot answer any of the questions that concerned him as a philosophers. The answers to these and all the understanding we need for the guidance of human life are to be found within our own minds, in the ideas engendered in and by our minds. Socrates exemplifies the difference between physical ‘explanation’ and philosophic explanation: he is seated on his prison bed; the scientist will account for his posture by giving an account of his bones and muscles and sinews; the philosopher will say that he is there because his principles dictate that he remain in prison and sustain execution rather than escape as his friends urged him to do (98b-99b). This is the whole difference between scientific and philosophic investigation. The former always tells us how things are or come to be but never what or why things are. Ignorance of this radical distinction is responsible for all the needless wrangling between scientists and philosophers.
Socrates explains another profound aspect of philosophic understanding. He says that he had previously thought “it was obvious to anybody that men grew through eating and drinking, for food adds flesh to flesh and bones to bones” and so on (96c-d, tr. G.M.A. Grube) but he was no longer satisfied with that kind of explanation. He now thought that only the idea of Growth gives us understanding of growth. Our philosophers and erudite scholars find this hard to grasp but it is essential for understanding of the whole Socratic-Platonic position. Let us imagine Adam in the Garden of Eden. There are trees everywhere; these are accepted as they are without difficulty. But a young shoot draws his attention. The next day he looks at it and it seems not to have changed. But in a few days there is something puzzling about it; it is the same and yet not the same. Then it flashes in his minf: it has grown; this is growth.
Socrates elucidates further. He will no longer allow himself “to say that where one is added to one either the one to which it is added or the one that is added becomes two” (95e-97a, tr. G.M.A. Grube) but will only hold that the two is two or becomes two by the idea Two. The human mind created the number series and only then did things become numbered. The savage may have the idea One and the idea Two but not the idea Three: To her or him three, seven, twenty are all equally just ‘many’.
This is the gist of what has come to be known as the Platonic Forms. The world presents us through our senses with impressions that in themselves mean nothing. It is only when the mind clothes the impression in a Form that the dumb impression becomes a meaningful sensation for us. Kant was to re-discover this: It is the gist of his Copernican revolution.
Socrates sums up the outcome of his search for causes. When he found that he could not find answers to his philosophical questions by investigating outer things, he gave up all such investigations and turned to seeking understanding by examining the ideas in the mind (99d-100a). This is the crucial separation of objective (scientific) investigation and subjective (philosophical) speculation that Socrates insisted on and that both scientists and philosophers have failed to heed with damaging consequences.
The Socratic separation of the intelligible and the perceptible was the foundation of Plato’s theoretical thinking. In the Phaedo (which may be seen as the epitome of Plato’s philosophical position) ‘Socrates’ introduces the idea that a philosopher lives not for the things of the body but for the things of the mind or soul, such as the ideals of justice and temperance and beauty. Such ideas, the idea of justice for instance, is the ousia of whose being philosophers give account in discourse (78d). He then simply suggests that we posit two kinds of being, the one visible, the other invisible (79a). This is the cornerstone of the whole of Plato’s epistemology, ontology, and axiology.
At his trial Socrates says that “it is the greatest good for a human being daily to converse of virtue” and that “the unexamined life is not a life for a human being” (Apology, 38a). That indeed sums up the Socratic-Platonic conception of the philosophic life. We read in the Phaedo:
“When the soul (mind) all by itself reflects, it moves into that which is pure, always is, deathless, and constant, and being of a like nature to that, remains with that always, whenever it is possible for it to be by itself, and then it rests from wandering, and in the company of that, is constant, being in communion with such; and it is this state that is called intelligence (phronêsis)” (79d).
Philosophy, purely and simply, is the act of philosophizing, of examining one’s mind or another’s mind. Philosophical insight is the luminescence of this active creative self-examination, not any result thereof. The philosophical life is the constant exercise of creative intelligence.
In the Republic, in the seminal central part (472a-541b) that scholars see as a mere digression, we read that “the philosopher reaches out for the whole and the all, aspires to behold all time and all being” (486a). But this must not be misunderstood. The whole of the philosophic endeavour is summed up by Plato in a prophetic passage that I have quoted many times before and will quote again:
“ … a true philosophical nature aspires to what IS, does not tarry by the many particulars that are supposed to be, but goes forth with no blunting and no slackening of her desire, until she grasps the essence of all reality by that in her soul to which it is becoming to grasp that (that is, what is akin), approaching and mingling with what has true being, gives birth to reason and reality; enjoys knowledge and true life and is nourished, and then has relief of her birth pangs …” (490a-b).
This is oracular and is to be understood as an oracle is to be understood: The whole of the philosophical journey begins and ends in the mind in the same way as the ascent to the Form of absolute Beauty described in the Symposium, and the reality attained, the reality the philosopher communes with, is the reality of the philosopher’s own mind, and just as in the Symposium the lover attaining the vision of Beauty will give birth not to images but to true virtue (212a) so here the philosopher communing with her or his inner reality gives birth to reason and reality.
Further on in the Republic when Socrates is asked about the highest wisdom he answers that it is the Form of the Good (505). When he is pressed to give an account of the Form of the Good, Socrates gives an allegory representing the sun as the offspring of the Good and as the sun is the source of light and sight but is itself more than light and sight, so the Good is the source of mind and the intelligible, giving the things known their reality and giving the knowing mind the power of knowing, but is itself beyond mind and the intelligible (508e-509a). For Plato no philosophic insight can be conveyed in a definite formulation of word or thought. The philosophic insight is an illumination engendered in the process of philosophizing and can only be represented in myth and parable. That is the reason why Plato insists that the grounds of any philosophic statement must regularly be destroyed by dialectic (533c). This also explains what he tells us emphatically in the Phaedrus:
“He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person …” (278c-d, tr. Fowler).
Consistently with this Plato did not write any systematic philosophical work. He wrote dramatic pieces that have to be read as drama, not to seek any truth or extract any doctrine from what is said in them, but to engage in dialogue with the speakers, think along with them, and above all think for oneself. We read a Platonic dialogue not to learn anything from it but to philosophize for ourselves. This is how we pay due homage to Plato.
Above, particularly in sections III and IV I have tried to delineate one type of philosophy, the one I have been promoting in all my writings, that I usually refer to as philosophy proper and have otherwise designated prophetic or oracular philosophy. In this concluding section let me outline the special version I have developed for myself.
Following Socrates I hold that philosophy has nothing to do with the actual outer world. That is the domain of objective science. Science studies, or rather interprets, the appearances of things. It can neither know the true nature of things nor why they are there. That is strictly true of all scientific knowledge: all scientific concepts and theories are creations of the mind, conceptual patterns in which the mute phenomena acquire meaning and being.
Philosophy looks into the mind and the ideas in the mind. Following Plato I say that these ideas are realities as opposed to the flux of external existents: they are all that we know of reality; more strictly speaking, our active, creative mind is the one and only reality of which we have immediate, direct, and indubitable cognizance. In probing our mind we have insight of our inner reality, That reality, that insight, is strictly ineffable. It is of the nature of mystic experience and, like all mystic experience, cannot be given any definitive expressions. Hence philosophers can only convey their insights in oracular visions and myths. Plato’s profoundest insights are to be found in the vision of the celestial abode of the Forms (Phaedrus), in the fable within a fable of Diotima’s account of the ascent to the Form of Beauty, in the Form of the Good which cannot be spoken of, in the notion of Procreation in Beauty, in the myth of Reminiscence, in the ‘likely tale’ of the Timaeus, in innumerable poetic flights throughout the dialogues.
The philosopher, as Plato says in the Republic, “reaches out for the whole and the all, aspires to behold all time and all being”. I believe that every sound human nature experiences this longing to belong to the All, this yearning that Shelley symbolizes in “The desire of the moth for the star, / Of the night for the morrow, / The devotion to something afar / From the sphere of our sorrow” . This longing for the All, breeding the idea of the All, gives a human being wholeness, integrity. It is the source and fount of all philosoph9c concepts of ultimate Reality, from Parmenides’s One to Plato’s Form of the Good to Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura. But we have to acknowledge (1) that it is our idea, of our own creation; (2) that all representations of it are necessarily mythical, (It is foolish of philosophers to quarrel about which representation is ‘true’.)
For a long time I sought a formula to cover all becoming until I saw at last that Becoming, like Being and like Mind, is an ultimate mystery; that reality is a perpetual becoming, a constant creativity, that indeed I cannot conceive of ultimate Reality except as (a) intelligent, (b) whole, and (c) creative. Hence I say that ultimate Reality is creative intelligence or intelligent creativity: I prefer this latter designation since I cannot conceive of ultimate Reality as an existent thing or entity but as sheer creativity. It is not an intelligent creator but intelligent creativity; it is the creativity, the act not the acting agent, that is the reality. I name it Creative Eternity. It is a difficult notion because it flies in the face of common modes of thought and language. But I feel it is the notion that mystics have long intimated when they spoke of their profoundest experience as Nothingness, Dark Night, and the kike.
If the metaphysical idea of Reality as the whole and the ultimate is an emanation of our mind as our inner reality it also gives us assurance of and insight into that inner reality of ours.
That is the alpha and omega of all philosophy worthy of the name.
D. R. Khashaba
April 11, 2017