Lives of Eminent Philosophers

Lives of Eminent Philosophers
This is a lightly adapted extract from Self and Unself, The Meaning of Everything.1

You can listen to a discussion around some of the themes of this book with James de Lys of the Hermitix podcast — recorded a few weeks ago, but released today — here.
Abstract philosophy is the exclusive use of the thinking mind to find truth. This doesn't just mean working out problems in the head, but also perceiving abstractly; seeing and hearing the world divided up into concepts, filtered through the 'screen' of the thinking mind, and assuming that this divided representation is the world. This activity is so common that you'd be forgiven for thinking that the world it presents is reality, just as you'd be forgiven for thinking that all reasoning about it is philosophy.

Abstract thinking about abstract experience is the only thing that happens in universities and just about the only thing you'll find in the philosophy section of a bookshop or library. When people use the word 'deep', they're usually thinking of the kind of difficult ideas that abstract philosophers talk about. Not that anyone really knows what abstract philosophers talk about, because what they say is extremely boring, absurdly difficult, irrelevant to ordinary life or outrageously self-absorbed, so nobody pays any attention to it.

Abstract philosophy is difficult, boring and pointless because, first of all, abstract philosophers are really only writing for other abstract philosophers, which is like chefs who only make food for other chefs, or doctors who only heal other doctors. Philosophy is essentially the haute-couture of literature, the production of ugly and unusable clothing for those who live in a world artificially rearranged so that they can be worn. An entirely institutionalised existence that is designed to insulate professional thinkers from reality makes books full of unreal concepts appear as useful and beautiful to philosophistas as an upside down dress does to fashionistas.
ugly high fashion dresses

Philosophy today
Philosophy today

The second reason that reading professional philosophy is such a miserable experience, is because professional philosophers rely exclusively on the thinking mind to understand truth, which is like relying exclusively on cookbooks to understand food, or textbooks to understand the human body. It's fair to say that most philosophers, psychologists and cognitive scientists believed and still believe — either explicitly or implicitly — that abstract reason and reality are more or less the same thing, that consciousness is thinking or self reflection, that only thought can grasp the essence of reality, that the essence of things is literally a form of thought, or that there is no point of view outside of reason from which reason can be judged. Even so called sceptics and empiricists, who appear to be focusing on the so-called sensory world and doubting the power of the mind to reveal that world, do so through the filter of standard, abstract, reasoning and isolating perception, which creates the isolated things they then reason about. If something cannot be conceived, if it is paradoxical, or silent, or eternal, then it can be, and is, dismissed out of hand.

This is why so many philosophers are baffled by reality. They take experiences which cannot be completely reduced to thought, think about them, and then find their thoughts perplexing. One of the earliest philosophers, for example, Zeno of Elea, who lived around 2,500 years ago, was a very confused man. He reasoned that no object — an arrow, for example — can ever get anywhere, because there are an infinite number of halfway stages it must first reach en route.2 A century later, Socrates and his disciple Plato became famous for the vast number of things they were confused about; such as what 'virtue' is, what 'knowledge' is and what 'thing' thought is 'of'. Eight hundred years later, Augustine of Hippo couldn't work out where the past and future are, or how time can ever be measured. A thousand years later, it was René Descartes' turn to be baffled by the contents of his own mind. He split experience into mind and matter and was then mystified by how thought could interact with a non-thinking body; a problem which has menaced professional minds ever since. A hundred years later, Hume couldn't understand what consciousness was, or morality, or causality, because none of them seem to exist in the objective world.

And so it goes on. There are thousands of cases of the same sort; straightforward affairs made puzzling by thought. Just as management exists in order to solve problems created by management, and teachers exist in order to educate people made stupid by the existence of schools, and technology exists in order to solve problems created by technology, so the source and root of these fanatically rational activities, abstract thinking, sets about trying to philosophically solve problems that it has created by thinking. Zeno's arrow, like Augustine's time, is not a series of discrete mind-isolated moments or steps, and Plato's 'good', like Hume's 'morality', is not an abstract idea. They are all brought into existence, like Descartes' perplexing subjects and objects, by the thinking self. The hyper-focusing mind creates mental objects of will, motion, meaning, the good and so on — it creates knowledge — and then is mystified at how they can be objects; how, for example, as Ludwig Wittgenstein asked, I can 'know your pain' — as if it were a nasty drink that I could dip a straw into; or how I can ever remember anything — as if memories were books on shelves that a little man in my mind has to index and retrieve; or how I can ever understand anything anyone says — as if I have to consult a dictionary to 'look up' all the words they utter.

The reason that so few philosophers ever criticise this activity, the conversion of experience into 'knowledge', into a kind of substance which can be produced and consumed, is that they are its producers and we are its consumers. Knowledge as a thing which can be owned, managed, packaged and consumed, automatically turns it into a scarce resource, which, like any other scarce resource, acquires a value which stigmatises the many, the very many, who cannot get their hands on it. Any thinker who rejects this state of affairs — the iniquitous foundation of the gnosocratic knowledge and 'education' industry — is ridiculed, rejected or ignored, or, at best, misunderstood by the academic world.

What abstract philosophers miss in the activity of abstract thought is that the knowledge they seek to acquire about experience is in experience, which, as their lives and their work demonstrate, they don't actually find very interesting. They speculate about experience, but they don't really have any, and so when they use the 'higher faculty' of reason to inspect consciousness, for example, or life, they find they are very confused and that they have nothing to say — like a man who empties a box to see what is inside it. In order to convince themselves and others that what they are doing is not an absurd waste of time, they close the box, and then describe it with extremely complicated ideas and arguments so that the reader is unable to guess that the box is actually still empty.

This isn't to say that valid arguments and proofs are not prodigiously useful, or that reasoning should be abandoned, or that faulty reasoning doesn't often reveal prejudice or obsession, but, for the most part, formal logic, for all its use (particularly in exposing deliberate attempts to deceive), is not employed by people who wish to understand life, but by those who wish to win arguments. It is perfectly possible to 'win an argument' and to 'devastate an intellectual opponent' using faultless logic that is based on empty, ridiculous or even insane premises and assumptions (very often sneakily omitted). A philosopher who argues that pederasty helps keep populations down (Aristotle), or that animals are essentially machines (Descartes), or that the only reason we don't cause pain to other people is because we are scared of revenge (Nietzsche), or that children are born with the innate ideas of carburettor and bureaucrat (Chomsky) or that reality needs fiction to conceal its emptiness (Žižek), is in this respect no different to a boyfriend who argues that he has fallen out of love with his girlfriend because love is a chemical, or a madman who argues that Genghis Khan lives in his fridge. When we say of such people that they have 'lost their minds', we mean that they have lost everything but their minds.3
decartes cartoon

He lost everything but his mind.
No idea, no reasoning, nothing that the thinking mind can do, has meaning without meaning first being present. It is impossible for an argument to produce any value that isn't in the premises. If, after a long train of reasoning, I confidently reach a conclusion that, say, the president of the United States is always the wisest man in the country, somewhere in the premises there is an unreasoned assumption about the nature of wisdom (or its absence) which I may develop by thinking, but cannot create by thinking.

There are three consequences of this.
  1. All reasoning, philosophical or otherwise, must begin with what are often dismissed as 'mere' assumptions and assertions; unreasoned declarations of truth such as 'consciousness exists and I am it', or 'something is happening' or 'pain hurts'. Although it is absurd to deny such things, there is no way to ever prove them, or argue them into existence; indeed if they could be proved or disproved they would cease to have any real, qualitative meaning to anyone but an android which, like the abstract philosopher, deals entirely in quantities.
  2. When difficult philosophies are translated into ordinary language they come down to simple assertions that anyone can test for themselves as being true or false4; because those assertions didn't come into being through rational thought. This is why abstract philosophers are reluctant to make simple assertions, or to give clear examples, and why reason cannot bring anyone any closer to a change of heart about their fundamental beliefs. People cannot be reasoned out of base premises that they did not reason themselves into. Devastate every fallacious argument in the world, expose every self-deception, dismantle every misguided or prejudicial worldview and it would make no difference to the assumptions that unfounded beliefs are anchored to. Something other than reason (and emotion) is required.
  3. The third consequence of meaning "preceding" reason is that one of the chief weapons in the abstract philosopher's armoury, the Mighty Fallacy, ultimately has no bearing on the truth content of a statement. Although classic fallacies are guides to incoherence, their absence does not validate an argument, and their presence does not invalidate it. Presenting personal information as evidence for example (the 'anecdotal fallacy'), or pointing out that a desired quality exists in the natural world ('the appeal to nature') or in traditional culture (the 'appeal to culture'), or caricaturing a position in order to critique it (the 'straw man'), or dismissing someone's position based on their hypocrisy (the 'appeal to hypocrisy') may be sloppy or illogical, or apt and carefully reasoned, but in neither case is the truth or falsehood of the premise affected.
Value, in the sense of philosophical truth, does not come to us through the activity of abstract philosophy, but through the activity of living.5 If reasoned argument can never arrive at conclusions that are not somehow contained in the premises, those premises must ultimately come from experience. This is the bedrock of any truth that can be shared, an unspoken agreement that my experience and yours are ultimately the same. Similarly, although error and lies may be prevented from advancing by a philosopher criticising the reasoning of those who went before him, the truth is only advanced when someone brings new qualities to the undertaking, qualities which he has already experienced, prior to any quantitative reasoning. This is why writers and teachers with anything meaningful to say have always led meaningful lives. They are not, first and foremost, impressive writers and teachers, but impressive human beings. It's also why a philosopher with something meaningful to say usually has more in common with children and animals than with his colleagues.

The literalist, abstract philosopher in contrast is a dull creature, largely unconscious, which is why he conflates a unified consciousness with attention; a rational kaleidoscope of self-created parts. He then concludes that 'consciousness', like meaning and quality, doesn't really exist. He correctly reasons, for example, that most somatic activity goes on without attention (I travel to work without realising or remembering anything that happened), that we don't need attention to learn (which frequently happens without knowing it), to make judgements (which often precede attention) or to act effortlessly (which becomes stilted if I do pay attention to what I am doing), that attention doesn't seem to have a location (different cultures locate it in different parts of the body) and that the objects of attention are only ever a 'bunch' of impressions which we are fooled into thinking are experienced by a consistent, persistent self (when I go looking for the self, I never seem to find it). There is no enduring attention says the literalist, again correctly; no unique private self — which pre-civilised cultures rarely recognise — and so, for the physicalist, there is no enduring consciousness, for the two are, to him, the same.6

The idea that consciousness and attention are fundamentally, qualitatively different is impossible for the literalist to grasp; because he is unconscious. He concludes that consciousness literally does or does not exist, because he cannot stop being a literal self; he cannot 'soften', 'slacken' or 'sacrifice' his self to unself in his actual, as opposed to his merely professional, life. He cannot experience the non-literal, so he assumes it is a literal non-thing or a literal thing. It's not unlike a compulsive worrier concluding that because he cannot stop thinking and emoting, 'peace of mind' either does not exist, or it is a literal thing which he cannot get. All literalists are given to worrying in this way.

Ultimately, all philosophy has as its subject consciousness, but what philosophers know of consciousness is not a question of what they think about it, what facts they have acquired about it, or what theories they have advanced as to its nature; all of this is to ask about their personal relationship to the objects of consciousness. Consciousness is, self-evidently, what the philosopher is; thus, to discover what he knows of it, is to ask the most terrifying question for all academic philosophers; how conscious are you?7

The problems of philosophy arise from the problems that philosophers have in their actual lives. Philosophies all attempt to explain what is, but 'what is' to the academic mind of an insensitive bore or to an over-emotional egomaniac is very different to the 'what is' of someone who has lived an interesting, meaningful life. Someone who has had to contend with life or death questions in profound experiences of uncertainty, or has sacrificed an ordinary life in order to make something meaningful of their existence, asks very different questions about life to someone who has grown up in an entirely mediated modern household, who was raised by ordinary modern parents in an ordinary modern marriage, who went from being educated in an institution to earning their living from one, who has never really had to mortify themselves, or take any real risks, or face the world as it actually is. Such people are insensitive to the pain of being unconscious — in fact are rewarded for and pacified by it — and so take no meaningful steps towards uprooting or investigating it, which is reflected in the superficial problems they tackle and the superficial conclusions they reach and solutions they discover.

This aspect of philosophical truth is repellent to professional philosophers, as it is to all those who do not lead meaningful lives, who are not impressive human beings or who do not wish to be. The idea that a great artist, a great thinker or a great teacher must be a great human being is instantly rejected by mediocre human beings, along with the idea that there can even be such things as 'greatness' and 'mediocrity'. In fact, this rejection makes up much of what abstract philosophers actually say, which, once you've battled your way through the forest of intellectual thorns they grow around their tiny plastic castles, turns out in many cases to be little more than 'quality is an illusion' or 'consciousness is an illusion' or 'love is an illusion' or 'sanity is an illusion' and similar crude and boring defences against nuance, variation and simplicity. In this they are no different from anyone else, but where ordinary people will use unsophisticated, perhaps even downright childish, reasoning to defend their desolate or cosmetic beliefs, or will refuse to reason, preferring to wave away difficult questions or exterminate those who raise them, philosophers will hide behind specialist language and formidably difficult abstract systems.

A great thinker does not hammer truth to the wall of the mind with the nails of a system, because he knows in doing so the truth will die. Instead, he presents, filtered through his learning, his conscious experience, either structuring this with an easily understood (and easily discarded) system, or he ignores maps and models altogether. It is life which matters to our greatest philosophers, which is why their work is like life; lucid, vivid and elusive. More like a novel. Great philosophy, taking the principle of nature as its source and subject, is like something in nature, the growth of ivy perhaps, or the song of a wren, or the activity of an ant's nest; sometimes messy, erratic here and there, but it holds together as one, and it speaks.

Abstract philosophy, by contrast, more closely resembles a power-tool; well reasoned, internally coherent, but lifeless, humourless and mechanical. It is conspicuously bereft of interesting examples or meaningful metaphors from life, or even a sense that life, the living reality we humans are part of, is anywhere involved, for the simple reason that abstract philosophers do not really live. If they started addressing life, putting in examples and metaphors from it, the chronic poverty of their lives would be instantly exposed, and that won't do. Better to rumble on and on about matters of no interest or concern to anyone but dried up philosophical bean-counters.

Academic philosophers spend most of their lives in institutions. They are institutionalised, and paid to manufacture justifications for an institutional — which is to say, hyper-specialised and unreal — existence. This is why they never have anything to say in any other medium, or even any other field. Nothing creative, certainly, nothing personal or human that would enable you to experience that from which such qualities arise, their character or our context (the world that appears in the work of professional philosophers is completely unrecognisable to anyone who is on the receiving end of it). It's also why you so very rarely get the sense reading philosophy that there is a real human being behind the words, an individual who lives in the real world, a friendly companion. It's the same with the science that so much philosophy trails after, where use of the word 'I' evokes a sense of shame, masquerading under an almost obsessive need to be 'objective'.

The individual, the selfless I, is irrelevant to matters of fact, and that, we are told, is what we are dealing with here. Except it isn't, is it? Philosophy is not primarily about matters of fact, but about the ultimate "cause" and quality of those facts. Philosophy is supposed to address itself to pressing questions of existence, to the reality and nature of consciousness, love, art, beauty, god, self, sex, death, creativity, madness, addiction and freedom, none of which can be reduced to rational fact and logical argument any more than the taste of orange juice can be reduced to a description of the effect of water, sugar and citric acid on the relevant cells of the body.

This is why many students who take philosophy degrees have the distinct feeling that they've got on the wrong train. They expect to be dealing with the towering mysteries of human existence, they expect to be studying the accounts of the immortals who went before us, who attempted to scale the same heights, they expect to be guided on this odyssey by interesting people who have made the same journey and returned with pristine insights into the path ahead. What they find instead is a cross between a librarian and an accountant piling up items of knowledge like coloured beads then handing them out to confused and bored young people who are expected to categorise them in, at best, a slightly different way to those who preceded them.

Abstract philosophers would have you believe that they have arrived at their opinions through reasoning, and that they disagree with other philosophers because of the weakness of opposing arguments, but this isn't it at all. In fact all philosophical positions are founded upon psychological realities. People don't first reason their way into their beliefs; they seek beliefs and attitudes which correspond to their felt inner reality, their way of living and their life-in-the-world, then find reasons to accept and defend those beliefs and attitudes; which is why reason cannot change them. First we have to believe, then we believe.8 Nobody mentions this in professional debate. The idea that beliefs and attitudes are not entirely nor even principally located inside people, that we are almost completely impotent to alter such beliefs, which are, particularly in the case of professionals, almost never arrived at through a process of careful, detached study (which is why they never change, even after a lifetime of study), that they are in fact very often a function of power relations in society or, if not, an extremely subtle, ongoing exercise in self-justification; all this is off the table of 'serious discussion'.

If you bring someone's life into a discussion you are accused of committing an 'ad hominem fallacy', invalidating an argument by an irrelevant focus on personal details; although the ad hominem fallacy is no more inherently false than any other fallacy. There is nothing inherently 'invalid' about criticising someone's life, or character, or the assumptions they bring to a discussion, or their vested interests. Ad hominem means 'to the man'; the reason so many people cry 'ad hominem!' so readily is because they are unwilling to bring their lives into the discussion, to be addressed as a man. Not that there isn't such a thing as unfair use of personal criticism in discussion, or abuse, but this can't be a fallacy, because it's not an argument; it's a distraction from argument. To say, however, that your loveless worldview is based on a loveless upbringing, or that your mediocre output is a consequence of living for forty years in a professional cage, or that you believe consciousness and thought are the same thing because you're basically a brain in a jar, is to make a perfectly fair point, albeit one that breaches the rules of impartial rationality that abstract, academic, professional philosophers cling to. And they do cling to it. When it is suggested to him that one's work is indistinguishable from one's life, the literalist philosopher, like the scientist and the businessman, is outraged. He complains that such things are irrelevant. His job doesn't require his life, his heart, his individuality; and of course he is quite correct. But what kind of person would devote his life to an activity which has no use for that life? Only one kind of person, or rather, only one kind of self; the self-informed self, or ego.
You have been reading a lightly edited extract from Self and Unself, an accessible and original philosophy of all and everything. Bernado Kastrup said of it, 'I loved it, the tone, the content, the lot.' Other reader endorsements include: 'Masterful writing... rare wisdom and punchiness.' 'Books like this don't come around often. Made my ego scream and life vivid.' 'Far and away the most eye-opening non-fiction book I've read in a long, long time. Possibly ever.' 'The only meaningful philosophical advance since Wittgenstein.' and 'A work of art.' Take a look here.
  1. Not literally.
  2. From Aristotle's Physics, although the flight of an arrow is from a different paradox.
  3. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
  4. 'Childish theories without the charm of childhood', as Wittgenstein put it (in his Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough).
  5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
  6. For the dualist, on the other hand, there is an enduring consciousness (which he calls 'soul' or something similar), but it literally exists (i.e. is a kind of Magical Mind, or Godself).
  7. There are a couple of editions of Self and Unself out there with the word 'conscious' inexplicably missing from this sentence, so that it end up saying that the most terrifying question for philosophers is 'how are you?'
  8. Georg Lichtenberg, The Waste Books