Monday, July 8, 2024

Philosophy was once alive

I do not think that you should approach all forms of philosophy, without an excellent background in mathematical Rigor.

That alone allowed me to grasp the role of the sixth logic operator and how it leads naturally to the definition of GOD.

And that rigor led to the SPACE TIME pendulum and my expansion of the foundations of our Mathematica with the nth bordered Pythagorean. And the inverse of empirical infinity is not zero.

When you read philosophic thought, you also understand the intent of GOD.  That intent is to be the mind of human husbandry on Earth and possibly elsewhere.  We are already immortals but outside of TIME.

Do you understand any of this?

Philosophy was once alive

I was searching for meaning and purpose so I became an academic philosopher. Reader, you might guess what happened next

Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/Getty

Pranay Sanklecha is a philosopher and writer, who is interested in everything to do with the human search for meaning. He lives in Hamburg, Germany.

‘Why did you decide to study philosophy?’ asked the Harvard professor, sitting in the park in his cream linen suit.

‘Because I want to find out how to live,’ I said. ‘I want to find out what matters and I want to live my life accordingly.’

He smiled affectionately, leaning forward in his deck chair.

‘If you want to find meaning, Pranay, don’t study philosophy. Go fish, become a carpenter, do anything. But don’t expect to find it by studying philosophy.’

If by ‘philosophy’ we refer to the played-out game of academic analytic philosophy, he was right. But if by philosophy we refer to the mysterious human activity of searching for truth, to processes of thought and perception, to communal seeking, to genuine dialogue and true encounter, to the moment when our minds open and something true rushes in – if we refer to any of these things, then the professor from Harvard was about as wrong as one could be.

Afew years later, I finished my doctorate at the University of Graz in Austria and embarked on life as a post-doc. Someone in that position usually has to churn out paper after paper on arcane aspects of philosophy for journals that no one reads. She has to attend conferences on subtle disputes, esoteric matters, where even the people attending look bored. She has to waste the best years of her life involving herself in intricate disputes that make no difference to her or anyone else’s life.

I had to do some of these things myself, but less than average, because I had lucked into a tenure-track position at Graz. Relative to the usual post-doc, I was free. And, as with so many kinds of freedom, to have it was also to be confronted by a question: how should I use it?

The natural option for my post-doc work would have been to find ever more pedantic things to say about John Rawls

In Austria, philosophy departments are funded by the state, which is to say that they are funded by the people of Austria through their taxes. Many academics were even officially contracted to the state as civil servants. I wasn’t, but the fact remained: people, many of them worse off than I was, were paying me to do philosophy. I felt like I owed them something.

The natural option for my post-doc work would have been to plough the departmental furrow and find ever more pedantic things to say about John Rawls. But Austria, I somehow felt, had heard enough about what people thought about the difference principle. Fine. Not that, then. But what instead?

The longer I spent trying to figure out what would be valuable to other people, the more lost I became. Eventually I decided to approach it from the other angle. I would find something that I really cared about – not intellectually, but existentially. That way, at least one person would find my post-doc work valuable.

For a long time, I had been enduring a crisis of meaning. I wanted to live a life that mattered, to do things that were valuable – and I was increasingly haunted by the suspicion that nothing really mattered, that everything was ultimately meaningless. I decided that my new research project would be on the meaning of life.

I worked in a tradition of philosophy that people still call ‘analytic’. The basic idea of analytic philosophy when it was first propagated was simple. At its core, it consisted of G E Moore’s favourite question. Someone would say something like: ‘Being is indivisible’, and Moore would ask, ‘But what on earth does that mean?’ To put this in more theoretical terms, the big idea behind analytic philosophy was to replace metaphysics with linguistic analysis. Advocates of this ‘linguistic turn’ believed, in Richard Rorty’s words, that ‘philosophical problems are problems which may be solved (or dissolved) either by reforming language, or by understanding more about the language we presently use.’ The way to make progress on the question of God’s existence was not to find more arguments for and against Her existence. Rather, one made progress by investigating what it meant to say ‘God exists’.

Today, it’s hard to fully inhabit the excitement felt by the pioneers of analytic philosophy and their immediate descendants, but it’s impossible to doubt that there was considerable excitement at the time. Michael Dummett, a Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford, and not therefore a man given to emotional pronouncements, claimed that:

Only with Frege [ie analytic philosophy] was the proper object of philosophy finally established: namely, first, that the goal of philosophy is the analysis of the structure of thought; secondly, that the study of thought is to be sharply distinguished from the study of the psychological process of thinking; and, finally, that the only proper method for analysing thought consists in the analysis of language.

While it remains usual to speak of analytic philosophy, nobody nowadays can say what it really means

Bliss it must have been in that dawn to be alive! But the French Revolution went from equality to tyranny, and in time, it turned out that Dummett had been too optimistic about analytic philosophy. The programme was revised and ultimately abandoned.

But the term ‘analytic philosophy’ has outlasted the historical movements of analytic philosophy. While it remains usual to speak of analytic philosophy and analytic philosophers, nobody nowadays can say what it really means.

Some people associate it with clarity, which is hilarious if you actually read analytic philosophy. Here, for instance, is Robert Nozick in Philosophical Explanations (1981):

We have said that W is a whole relative to parts p1, … , pn when the closest continuer of W need not be the sum of the closest continuers of the parts pi, when (a) it is possible that the closest continuer of W exists yet does not contain as a part some existing closest continuer of one of the pi’s; or (b) it is possible that the closest continuer of W exists and contains some part q that is not a closest continuer of any of the pi (nor a sum or other odd carving up of these); or (c) it is possible that at some later time no continuer of W is close enough to be it, even though each of the pi then has a continuer close enough to be it – the parts exist at the later time but the whole does not.

That sentence has many properties. I’m not sure clarity is one of them.

Others say it has something to do with ‘rigour’. This may be closer to the truth, but only if you take it as something to do with rigor mortis. Consider Susan Wolf writing on meaning in life. She has just expressed the idea that the ‘best sort of life is one that is involved in, or contributes to something “larger than oneself”.’ But as soon as Wolf has said this, she realises she has not been rigorous, that the thought has not been properly explained. She immediately tells us that: ‘[c]ontemplation of the case of Sisyphus should, however, be enough to show that this “larger” must be understood metaphorically. We may, after all, imagine the rock Sisyphus is endlessly pushing uphill to be very large.’

I think we can all agree that this is very rigorous. The thought has been pursued until there is no more thought possible. The lemon has been squeezed dry. Sisyphus could have been pushing a very large rock up that hill. The largeness of rocks, we now see, is not the type of largeness that Wolf had in mind. It is a different type of largeness. One might almost venture to call it… metaphorical.

‘The meaning of life’ has actually been a very marginal topic in analytic philosophy

Another way people have tried picking out analytic philosophy is to base it on a geo-linguistic criterion and call it Anglophone philosophy. But this is very unfair to the poor German professors churning out pages of turgid prose in what Bernard Williams called the ‘style [that] tries to remove in advance every conceivable misunderstanding or misinterpretation or objection, including those that would occur only to the malicious or the clinically literal-minded.’

No, nowadays – and ironically for a tradition that prides itself on ruthless thought and hard-edged precision – analytic philosophy is basically just a vibe. And as with all vibes, it’s clear who belongs and who doesn’t. As someone working in the analytic tradition, I knew exactly what ‘the literature’ was and what kind of stuff I should be reading for my research.

Despite ‘the meaning of life’ being the topic that non-philosophers think philosophers work on, it’s actually been a very marginal topic in analytic philosophy. Sure, interest in the issue was never fully extinguished, and every so often an older philosopher – it was almost always an older philosopher, who had a secure professional position and reputation and could therefore afford to write about the meaning of life – would write a little paper about it. But for pretty much all of the past century, it was not the sort of thing that anyone worked on before getting tenure.

However, lately there has been something of a revival of interest in the topic in analytic philosophy. Over the past 15 to 20 years, more and more papers and books have been published. The work has begun to coalesce into something approaching a recognisable sub-field of the discipline. One of the foundations of the analytic work is a distinction between the meaning of life and meaning in life. Questions about the meaning of life refer to the question of whether human life as such has a meaning, or whether the universe does. It’s a holistic kind of question. Meaning in life, on the other hand, refers to the ‘individualistic’ question of how and where and whether individuals can find meaning in their own lives.

The consensus view is that the two questions are fundamentally distinct and theoretically separate – you can have a meaningful life in a meaningless universe, and vice versa. How robust this separation is I’m not entirely sure, but that doesn’t matter for our current purposes. The point for now is that on this distinction, we can say that my crisis of meaning and my research project were both about meaning in life – the very thing that analytic philosophers wrote and talked about.

There’s a Sherlock Holmes story in which the plot turns on a dog that doesn’t bark when it should have. And as I read more and more analytic philosophy on meaning in life, I kept stumbling into this non-barking dog. I spent a long time reading, taking notes, straining to figure out what I was struggling with. The more I tried, the less I understood.

Eventually, I realised that there was no there there. I had been trying to understand an absence. In the analytic literature on meaning in life, there is remarkably little sustained engagement with nihilist or sceptical worries about value. The basic version of this worry is very simple: it’s the worry that nothing is valuable. You’d think that this was quite an important worry to consider when thinking about the meaning of life – nihilism is very much a thing. It’s not that you had to endorse nihilism, but you at least had to engage seriously with the reasons people have for being nihilists. Analytic philosophers dealt with this worry by assuming it away.

For instance, Wolf, the doyenne of the field, proposes the theory that ‘meaningfulness consists in active engagement in projects or activities of worth’. She recognises the threat of nihilism and accepts that her theory ‘would be utterly destroyed if it turned out there were no such things as projects or activities of worth at all’. Her response is to call it ‘an article of faith’ that there is a distinction between worthwhile and worthless projects. And like all articles of faith, that only speaks to someone who already believes.

This view assumes that meaning in life is a realisable and sometimes actually realised property of an individual life

Here is another example. Aaron Smuts argues in Welfare, Meaning, and Worth (2017) that: ‘one’s life is meaningful to the extent that it promotes the good’. He sees, naturally, that nihilists might have problems with this account but he dismisses this issue right away: ‘I will merely note that I see no compelling reasons to take nihilism seriously … Nothing more can be said in favour of objective value here. I acknowledge that the good cause account is off the table for nihilists. So be it.’

These examples are suggestive, nothing more. But there is an explanation behind them that is important. The neglect of sceptical and nihilist worries about meaning in life is no accident. Rather, it is a necessary expression of the debate as it is framed and conducted.

Philosophers working on meaning in life love cases. They identify paradigmatic examples of meaningful lives, and then use them to draw conclusions about the necessary and sufficient conditions for living a meaningful life. Thaddeus Metz is explicit about this at the beginning of his book Meaning in Life (2013): ‘I, like most in the field, take specific exemplary instances of great meaning to have been realised by the likes of Mandela, Mother Teresa, Einstein, Darwin, Picasso, and Dostoyevsky.’ Wolf, too, speaks of ‘Gandhi, perhaps, or Mother Theresa, or Einstein, or Cézanne’ as ‘paradigms of meaningful lives’, and uses these cases to make arguments and claims about meaning in life.

This method of using paradigmatic cases is closely linked to one of the foundational assumptions of the analytic project. Wolf states the assumption clearly when she describes what she accurately calls the ‘standard view’ about meaning in life. As she puts it, the standard view holds ‘that meaningfulness is an intelligible feature to be sought in a life, and that it is at least sometimes attainable but not everywhere assured.’ The view assumes, in other words, that meaning in life is a realisable and sometimes actually realised property of an individual life.

We can see why the method and the assumption go together. When you use paradigmatic cases of meaningful lives to think about meaning, you’ve made a commitment to the claim that people can and sometimes do live meaningful lives. From this perspective, the method generates the assumption.

And if we look at it from the other angle, the use of the method is an expression of the assumption, and an explanation of why the former is so widely accepted. If you assume that meaning in life is something that is sometimes actually realised in individual lives, it makes perfect sense to try to find examples of those lives in which it is realised so that you can then start identifying some general features of meaningful lives.

The problem is that the method and the assumption are deeply flawed. To see why, consider Leo Tolstoy’s own crisis of meaning:
In the middle of my concern with the household, which at the time kept me quite busy, a question would suddenly come into my head: ‘Very well, you will have 6,000 desyatins [unit of land] in the Samara province, as well as 300 horses; what then?’ And I was completely taken aback and didn’t know what to think. As soon as I started to think about the education of my children, I would ask myself, ‘Why?’ Or I would reflect on how the people might attain prosperity, and I would suddenly ask myself, ‘What concern is it of mine?’ Or in the middle of thinking about the fame that my works were bringing me I would say to myself, ‘Very well, you will be more famous than Goethe, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Molière, more famous than all the writers in the world – so what?’ And I could find absolutely no reply.

Let us now imagine that a well-meaning friend of Tolstoy’s introduces him to the present-day literature on meaning in life. The literature would tell him: ‘Leo, it’s alright. We got you. Your life, you see, is a paradigmatically meaningful life. So, first of all, don’t worry that it’s meaningless. It’s actually the very model of a meaningful life. And then, if you want to know some more, well, from your life, and from other paradigmatic cases of meaningful lives, we can tell you (at some level of abstraction) what is required to live a meaningful life.’

Tolstoy is hardly going to find any of this of much use. His problem is precisely that he thinks his life is meaningless, so a theory of meaning that is built on the assumption that his life is meaningful is at best a joke to him.

Ispeak of Tolstoy, but I am speaking of myself too. I had turned to analytic philosophy with a hope born of desperation. I longed for something that would help me with my crisis, something that would relieve the pain. I found nothing. The assumption that allowed the analytic philosopher to proceed was the exact locus of my crises.

Does anything really matter? That’s what Tolstoy and I both want to know. And analytic philosophers don’t just refuse to answer this question – they couldn’t even ask it, because their project only got started on the assumption that things did matter. What use was this to us?

This is a problem for the analytic debate. Philosophers working in this tradition of questions of life’s meaning explicitly aim to address existential questions about life’s meaning, and to be capturing and addressing the human experience of searching for meaning. So even purely on their terms, the fact that they assume away sceptical and nihilist concerns and experiences is a problem.

Philosophy programmes are being cut, and I am willing to bet a tenured professor’s salary that more cuts are coming

The analytic debate takes something of existential concern – a question that was for many people literally a matter of life and death – and managed to be blind to much of their experience. It takes one of the most profound questions that human beings can ask and has turned it into a discussion of the private prejudices and contingent beliefs (also called ‘intuitions’) of a bunch of people who have been similarly socialised. And in doing these things, it’s not exceptional. It’s actually a symptom and an illustration of something much bigger and more important than a bunch of academics getting something wrong in one local debate.

Consider the temples of ancient Greece. Once they were thick with blood and smoke. They were places where living creatures were sacrificed, where novices were initiated by frightening esoteric rituals, where strange chants mingled with cries of pain and ecstasy. Today, they are tourist attractions.

The discipline of academic philosophy is like those Greek temples. Its practitioners are caretakers wandering around empty rooms, painting the walls, and washing the floor while the entire edifice collapses around them.

There are many signs of declining vitality at the general level. Daily Nous, a popular professional philosophy blog, has a category called ‘Cuts and Threats to Philosophy Programs’, which is instructive in itself – it wouldn’t have been necessary in 1960. The entries in this category testify that philosophy programmes across the United Kingdom and the United States are regularly threatened with closure. Increasing numbers are being cut, and I am willing to bet a tenured professor’s annual salary that there are significantly more cuts coming.

The cutting of programmes is a natural reflection of the fact that people don’t want to study philosophy. Philosophy degrees in the US are either modestly up or stable relative to 2017, but significantly down relative to 2010. If you extend the period out to roughly the past 20 years, then philosophy majors as a percentage of bachelor’s degrees have stayed roughly stable – but only because it was already low, between 0.4-0.6 per cent. These are important pieces of evidence, but they are secondary. They are symptoms and manifestations of something much more important, namely an internal decline and an inner death.

Look at the words that professional philosophers produce. Look, for however long you can bear, into the pages of arcane journals filled with intricate disputes about how many trolleys can dance on the head of a pin. Peek into classrooms that are filled with the atmosphere of boredom and futility. Speak to young philosophers, young practitioners of the discipline, the ones who should be filled with love and excitement for philosophy and see instead their disappointment and their cynicism.

I was once one of those young philosophers. I came to philosophy as so many other young people, as so many of my contemporaries, as so many of my students over the years came to it. We were driven by deep and authentic need, by the needs that human beings have always had – the need to make sense of our lives, the need to be consoled for our suffering, the need to be awed by things greater than ourselves, the need to experience the true, the good, and the beautiful. We yearned for wisdom, for glimpses of ideas and people that allowed us to believe that there was something very fine in human beings and that we might legitimately strive to live in ways that cultivated and expressed it.

That is what we yearned for. What we found was something rather different. Geoff Dyer put it well in Out of Sheer Rage (1997):

Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch. I recently met an academic who said that he taught German literature. I was aghast: to think, this man who had been in universities all his life was teaching Rilke. Rilke! Oh, it was too much to bear. You don’t teach Rilke, I wanted to say, you kill Rilke! You turn him to dust and then you go off to conferences where dozens of other academic-morticians gather with the express intention of killing Rilke and turning him to dust. Then, as part of the cover-up, the conference papers are published, the dust is embalmed and before you know it literature is a vast graveyard of dust, a dustyard of graves.

I recognise that anger. It still makes me angry now, to think of the depth and the beauty and the pain of the human need, and of how it is met by dusty professors playing their little games. But anger is not an easy place to live from; nor is it the most fertile. Over time, the anger receded, and it was replaced by something that felt like a moral challenge. If academic philosophy really was so awful (and it was), then shouldn’t I try to offer an alternative?

Philosophy was once alive too, almost terrifyingly so. Why else would a man called Socrates choose to cheerfully go to his death rather than betray it? Can we make it alive again by going back to a vision of how the Greeks did philosophy?

No. Philosophy was alive for the ancients because it was the form – which they needed to invent – that authentically expressed some very deep and constant human needs. The way to reanimate philosophy, to fill it again with life and vitality and urgency, is not to copy an old form. For philosophy to become a living thing, for a form to be invented that speaks to human beings today, it needs to go back to the needs that the form once contained and satisfyingly expressed.

I left academia in the summer of 2022. Since then, I do philosophy in the world

How? I have no suggestions about which I am certain. I am suspicious of any grand programme here because the whole thing about a live form – about life itself, possibly – is that its growth must be – to a large extent – unplanned, it must evolve organically, it must grow and change as a response to the needs and the context in which it first comes into being at all.

Instead of programmes or manifestos, then, let me offer two basic principles that have guided my own experiments.Principle 1: If we are trying to create (or rediscover) a philosophy that is a vital response to authentic human need, then let us go wherever the human need is. Let us go back to the world, to the modern equivalents of the Greek agora, let us do philosophy in places and with people where we are not protected – and mummified – by the sophisticated conventions and intricate rules of the institution of academic philosophy.

Principle 2: If we are trying to create (or rediscover) a form of philosophy and an activity of philosophising that is alive, then we need to be alive ourselves, and our life needs to be in the form. This does not mean confessional or autobiographical philosophy (though it can be that too, if it wants). It means rather… actually, no. You need to decide what it means.

I’ve put my money where my mouth is. I left academia in the summer of 2022. Since then, I do philosophy in the world. I do it with people and for people who really are grappling with philosophical questions – not as theoretical puzzles, but as things that matter in their lives. In this activity, I have glimpses of philosophical activity that is alive, and these glimpses are sufficient for a lifetime.

No comments: