Wednesday, January 24, 2018



D. R. Khashaba

Why is it that philosophy, unlike science, does not have a commonly agreed body of thought or doctrine to show for its continued efforts over some twenty-six centuries?

In my view the answer is quite simple: philosophy is not required to vie with science in yielding positive knowledge about the objective world, nor is it required to vie with mathematics in attaining demonstrable propositions. Unfortunately philosophers themselves have not been generally clear on this in their own minds. The failure of philosophers to grasp and acknowledge this is responsible for much muddled thinking and for the ignominy that has been the near-universal fate of philosophy.

Philosophy and science are two distinctly separate activities relating to two radically different realms of being. To underline and emphasize this distinction I draw a corresponding radical distinction between knowledge, which I assign totally to science, and understanding, which solely and totally pertains to philosophy.

Let me give an illustration. Seed laid in moist soil germinates, sprouts, grows, yields fruit. Let us clear our minds of all that we have learned about this process. Let us imagine humans with no inherited knowledge whatsoever, imagine them observing this miracle for the first time. There is no necessary connection between one stage of this process and the next. It is all just completely separate happenings, we cannot even justifiably say ‘following one another’. Ask Hume. It is all a mystery, or better said, a number of disparate mysteries. Then the mind of a genius among humans produces the idea ‘growth’ and lo! the unrelated mysteries fall together to form an intelligible whole. This is understanding.

Then people learn to plant seeds and in time there grows the body of knowledge we have today in botany books and the inherited know-how of agriculturists. We fancy that this body of knowledge gives us understanding of the mystery. The most exhaustive account of the observed happenings does not make us understand how and why a seed becomes a tree bearing fruit. For us, drowned in knowledge, this is difficult to grasp. The idea ‘growth’ also does not explain the mystery but it gives us the peace of being possessed of an intrinsically coherent whole — permit me to say, a metaphysical whole.

The ‘Laws of Nature’ formulated by scientists are generalizations of observed regularities in the natural phenomena. They do not explain those phenomena even though scientists in general commonly claim that they do. We need to realize that science neither can nor is required to explain or make us understand happenings in nature. The loose use of the terms ‘explain’ and ‘understand’ makes this important point difficult to grasp but it is necessary that we be clear about it.

On all levels all understanding is a creation of the human mind, from simple perception to metaphysical insight. “The mind is its own place, and in itself” creates meanings, values, realities, intelligible worlds. Milton’s words extend farther, higher, deeper than he intended.

A philosopher does not reach her or his position by reasoning but the travail of wrestling with the philosopher’s own inner realty is rewarded with insights that, in Plato’s words “suddenly, lik e light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself” (Epistle VII, 341c-d, tr. Glenn R. Morrow). The philosopher gathers the insights as a lover gathers roses in a bouquet for the beloved. The unity of a philosopher’s thought is not primarily rational or logical but aesthetic, like the unity of a fine mosaic.

What is a philosopher’s valuable and durable contribution to the common treasury of human culture? Not a theory, not a doctrine, and decidedly not positive knowledge about the world. A philosopher, in wrestling with the mysteries of Life and Being, continuing the creative work of the mind, creates magic garbs of thought that lend character and meaning to the neutral stuff of life and the world, thus rendering that stuff intelligible. A particular philosopher’s special collection of such creative notions constitutes that philosopher’s universe of discourse, which becomes part of the cultural heritage of humanity. In Plato’s Universe of Discourse I tried to identify Plato’s collection of such creative notions.

Philosophers are creators of special universes of discourse. When we attempt to reconcile two different philosophies, each expressing its proper universe of discourse, the outcome is more likely to be a confused jumble than a meaningful reconciliation. Each universe of discourse is unique, standing in its own right.

A philosopher’s universe of discourse, constituting her or his Weltanschauung is whole and unique. To assess it or interpret it in terms of a different philosopher’s universe of discourse produces an incoherent muddle.

Hitherto philosophers have tended to adopt the absurd stance of assuming that there can only be one ‘true’ philosophy, all the others being at best approximations, failed exertions to reach the one ‘true philosophy’. So long as this attitude ruled, and it still mainly rules, if not openly and explicitly then as a thinly veiled assumption — so long as that attitude ruled, philosophy was understandably open to mockery and ridicule. And that attitude will inevitably rule so long as it is held that philosophy, like science, aims at attaining ‘true knowledge’. Unless we realize and are convinced that we are all equally ignorant, and that all ultimate questions relate to ultimate mysteries that will always be beyond our ken — unless and until we see that clearly, we shall continue to dwell in the Cave of Plato’s Allegory.

We have no ‘true knowledge’ of the world: this is so without qualification. In science the most up-to-date ‘explanatory theory’ that ‘saves the appearances’ is maintained until we have a better representation, but it is all fiction from beginning to end.

A commonly agreed body of philosophic thought would have nothing to do with philosophy; it would amount to the death of philosophy. When philosophy is not the wrestling of a human mind with the unknown and unknowable it ceases to be philosophy; it turns into dogmatic superstition. To philosophize the philosopher must be fully aware that she or he knows nothing and can never know anything. All our boasted ‘knowledge’ is tinsel and shadow. When the condition of knowing nothing, confessing that one knows nothing, and resigning to the conviction that one can never know anything — when that condition is fulfilled, then one’s philosophizing would be a daring challenge to the unknown and unknowable. The philosopher confronts the unknown and unknowable ultimate realities saying: Be damned! I will create my own understandable world.

Every philosopher creates her or his more or less consistent, more or less intelligible reality. Every philosopher creates her or his understandable world for herself or himself in the first place, to give herself or himself respite from the irksome sense of being plunged in an un-understandable world, but thereafter everybody is welcome to roam that private world and participate in the peace it affords.

Do philosophers then deceive themselves and live in a big lie? Put it that way if you wish, but when the lie is known for a lie it loses its sting.

Dear Reader, if you have the stamina to go through what follows, you will find nothing but sheer madness, but it is that madness that is the sum of wisdom.

The ultimate mysteries of Being, Mind, Life, Becoming can never be solved, resolved, or explained. Science cannot approach these mysteries since they cannot be objectified so as to make them accessible to measurement and empirical experimentation. Nor can philosophers explain these mysteries. Yet philosophers create understandable myths in terms of which the world is intelligibly portrayed — I am trying to speak the ineffable: this is where mystics escape unto Unreason, Nothingness, Cloud of Unknowing — let me say: in terms of which we are enabled to make our peace with the mystery. For where do we meet face to face with the mysteries of Being, Mind, Life, Becoming? It is in our own internal reality. Hence we mythologize to give expression to our insight into our own internal reality. Hence I insist that the way to understanding ourselves and understanding reality is the realization and the confession of our ignorance. Philosophers have to confess and to declare that their mythical representation of our internal reality is not knowledge, is not truth.

Parmenides said: tauto gar esti noein te kai einai, “it is one and the same thing to be intelligible and to be”, or we might put it this way: “intelligence and reality are one and the same”. This is the credo of all genuine philosophy, from Plato through Spinoza to Hegel. But I find fault with philosophers when they affirm that this is true of the actual world. Philosophers legislate for themselves; they have no right, no competence, to legislate for Reality outside the human mind. Of all philosophers hitherto (apart from mystics and the old sages of China and India) only Plato saw this clearly and affirmed it explicitly. At the apex of the philosophical ascent, the end of the philosophical travail, Plato finds the Form of the Good about which we can only speak in myth and parable.

The one Reality that we know immediately and indubitably is our subjective inner reality. All the rest is flux, shadow, transient phenomena. That is why I insist on the principle of philosophical ignorance: the confession of our ignorance is the gateway to – not knowledge – but understanding — understanding of what?, of the one reality we know, our inner reality represented in intrinsically coherent myths.

That is why, dear Reader, philosophers must, should, differ, intimating their insights into the one Reality in various prophetic dreams, exactly like poets, for philosophers are indeed poets.

Dear Reader, I know that what I have been saying in this essay is hard to absorb, for I am condensing in these few lines what I have been expounding in numerous books and essays over more than two decades.

D. R. Khashaba

January 24, 2018

Posted to xnd


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