To philosophize is to cease living

by Oscar Brenifier, February 2009


Discuss / diskuter


Stopping the narration

Life is a sequence, a series of events. When someone tells his life, to his friends or by writing an autobiography, he tells a story: this happened, then this happened, and finally this happened, thus ending the narration. And in general human beings enjoy telling each other their “life story”, sometimes because important things happened, but most often giving an account of the most trivial and uninteresting details, just to be able to hold a conversation with neighbors, and exist a little bit more. The same thing goes for hearing the “life story” of other persons, the gossiping about the neighbors or about celebrities, an insatiable drive for voyeurism. Another way in which life is a narration is the way we conceive our activities, often ran by an agenda, which establishes what we should do on such a day and at such time, a laundry list of activities such as getting up, working, shopping, miscellaneous appointments, daily chores, and the indispensable television programs schedule, all of which rhythms many a family life. And how much do we worry about all the things we haven’t done, that we should do and probably will never do, that have to inscribe themselves anyhow in the infinite list that compose our existence, as if time was the main or only parameter. That is one of the reasons why it is so easy to feel eternal or to forget our own finitude: our desires resist and strongly conspire against such a limit. If I had the time! Existence is thus a large list of events and deeds, and a much larger list of hopes, expectations and fear of events and deeds.

Then, how does philosophy oppose the idea of a narration? Although there again some philosophers will in the modern period defend such a phenomenological vision of existence and promote the narration, one of the great revolutions of philosophy, as it appeared in the classical Greek upheaval which some consider—rightly or wrongly—as the birth of philosophy, was to move from the mythos to the logos. Until then, everything, be it the creation of the world, the existence of man, natural phenomena, moral and intellectual problems, were explained in the form of stories that we, modern and “enlightened” minds, would call myths. If we did not take into account the quality factor, we could call them very well television shows. And since some of those most fantastic myths needed actors, all kinds of creatures were invoked and convoked to perpetrate the actions accounting for the different cosmic or unexplained phenomena. Thus poets, as they were called, like Hesiod or Homer for the Greeks, Virgil or Ovid for the Romans, insightfully composed inspiring tales that gave coherence and explanations to the world. Cosmogonies, theogonies, epics, all kind of stories were concocted that would be used to educate the population, giving them the idea that there was sense in the universe, that daily events had something to account for them. And of course, to bring this home, our most minute human happenings should echo those great “historical” feats, so we could have as well our daily small myths, intertwined with cosmic ones in some kind of causal relation. Therefore, the universe as a whole and all the parts composing it had meaning, significance, laws and principles, all in the form of a “story”. This would allow as well a reassuring proportion of predictability to console us from the hardships of life, even by way of an explanation all we had was the temper tantrum or the love story of some wild god. And small stories would reflect great stories, but everything was stories. This was the case not only in Greece and Rome, but in Egypt, in China, in India, to mention only some of the most famous and long lasting cultures, since those myths were actually founders of civilization. And as we see still today in many countries, like for example in Africa, those stories have a very important educational function, since patterns emerge, what some call archetypes, that allow us to perceive the events affecting us not just as particular occurrences, but as the manifestations or recalls of something more fundamental.

The emergence of the logos, that took place not only in Greece—it is just the most famous such upheaval—but as well in some other cultures, is basically the transformation of a “story telling” culture to an “explanation” culture, which some call “rationality”, or “abstraction”. The idea was to substitute stories with reasons and rules, procedures and methods. It implies that one can get away from concrete situations, particular or universal, to replace them with ideas, which have for specificity to be a-temporal and a-spatial. Those ideas would then be organized and formalized to create systems, that could be used to produce new knowledge, and general principles, that would be used to examine critically thoughts and even facts. Logic is an example of pushing to its limits such an intellectual functioning. Mathematics and astronomy are in many early cultures the most visible and primary forms of such endeavors, sometimes medicine and physics as well. Those new sciences would allow an understanding of the present and the past, and predict the future. Knowledge would not be based only on empirical data, but on abstractions and intellectual constructions. Laws would emerge, that were not only descriptive, explaining what we perceive, but as well prescriptive, telling us what we should do.

The reason we used brackets for the terms explanation, rationality and abstraction, is that in a certain way, the mythos culture was already attempting to do this, just in a different way. In fact, in Africa today is raging a debate to determine if there is—was—or not an African philosophy, to determine if the story telling of the “griots”, the traditional bard, can be considered or not as philosophy. The western oriented African intellectuals claim that this is not philosophy principally because there is no conceptual system and critical apparatus, and therefore the philosophical content is not explicated. The other camp, which are called the ethno-philosophers, claim that these stories do question, analyze and problematize, in particular human existence, on existential, social and moral questions. We must here remind as well how Shelling, a German romantic philosopher, counterpoised to the idea of the traditional Aristotelian “first philosophy”: metaphysics, a “second philosophy”, which is the narration, the story telling, although this second philosophy is chronologically the first one. For it is true that societies are founded on great myths, that embody the essence, the nature, the reason of being, the goal, the specificity of this given society. That is why literature, in the form of theater, poetry or else, is such an important institution, along side philosophy, to explain who we are, what the world is. And Shelling will not be the only philosopher criticizing the abandonment of the narration as a crucial form of philosophy. More recently, the very idea of “philosophy of systems” or the one of “method” has been under great attack even by philosophers.

Thus, along the great myths, there are the numerous tales, ancient or recent, that contribute to create the identity of the ones that tell them and the ones that receive them. This includes the stories that run in families, the myth that each one makes for himself. Don’t we all have those stories about ourselves, that we have told so many times, changed and embellished along the numerous occasions of telling them, those stories that others repeat like us, those stories that our entourage are sometimes tired of hearing, but we keep telling them because those stories are what we are, or we are what they are. We say they are real, but in a way a story cannot be real, since it subjectively describes in a specific and partial way an event which in itself escapes any description, with words or otherwise. After all, man is the only animal that invents himself!

Thus, to make more clear our idea of philosophy as a rupture with life defined as a sequence of events, let us summarize with the following points. Telling a story is easier and more natural than explaining; it is concrete, it speaks more to everyone. Examples come more readily to the mind than explanations. Stories look more real than explanations, since they are concerned with describing facts rather than giving subjective interpretations and biased analysis. Stories are more gratifying, because we can look good with very few easy and simple words. Stories give much more room to imagination than reason, the latter being much stricter. Stories are more pleasing to hear than abstract thoughts: even children enjoy them, since they have an aesthetic dimension that explanations and ideas often lack. Philosophy has a more arid image, not as easily pleasing, since it implies understanding, much more than narration does. But of course, those work hypotheses are in no way absolute, since they merely try to provide some generalities about general perceptions, that already are not valid for many philosophers, since most of them enjoy what the common mortal does not enjoy. The philosopher is in a way, in the eyes of many persons, someone that at least partially gave up on life. He seems not to be interested in “real life”: he prefers abstruse ideas. Which takes us to our next point: the ascetic quality of ideas.


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