To philosophize is to cease living

by Oscar Brenifier, February 2009


Discuss / diskuter



Let us now examine the “intellectual” problem of philosophy. To start, we can remind the reader of the famous history of the Thales and the servant girl, told by Plato. Apparently, Thales, philosopher and astronomer, was looking at the stars, and not looking at his feet, he fell in the well. A servant who saw the scene started laughing heavily at such a fool, who so busy with “ethereal spheres” thus ignored the reality in front of him. The question which of course imposes itself to the philosophical mind, which as the story implies is probably not the case of the servant girl, is to know if the well, the hole in the ground, the immediate physical presence, is endowed with more reality that the far away heavens that Thales was engaged into contemplating. This story captures well the general view of the philosopher, of philosophical activity, even though it will be labeled as a cliché. But after all, a cliché is a term that at the origin designates the picture taken by the camera, showing in a fixed way what is immediately visible; therefore, in spite of its reductionist quality, there is reality to the cliché. So the philosopher, by claiming there is a reality other that the immediate and visible reality, focuses on this hidden reality, is obsessed by its secret, and therefore does not see anymore, or much less, what is visible to anyone else. This again brings us back to Plato and the allegory of the cave, where the man that has seen the “light of truth” is blinded once he is back in the dark cave, he cannot play the common games, which will lead his fellow citizens to first laugh at him, then kill him.

Another point of difference about life, when we think of Thales and the servant, is the body issue. For is seems that if the servant inhabits her body, the philosopher does not. We could well think of him—as of many philosophers—as a mind on legs, his body being a mere transportation instrument of his head, as we see it on small children drawings. She has a body, he is some kind of ectoplasm. Contrary to her, he does not care about what happens to his body, and that is why he falls. Immediacy of the senses has no real meaning, since his senses are so stretched out, looking at the stars, that they don’t distinguish themselves anymore from the mind’s activity. When the servant girl seems to be endowed of what is called “horse sense”, this common sense so closely linked to sense perception. She trusts her eyes and her mind for what they tell her, when he doubts, dissects and tries to go beyond. She is alive, she exists, he is an intellectual being. He incarnates the classical intellectualist thesis: the body is a prison for the soul, a soul which desperately tries to reach the unbounded, attain the unconditioned, but a soul that the body constantly humiliates, reminding him of his finite self. While the soul, in return, scorns at this ridiculous piece of flesh called the body. Life is dirty, and messy. That is the reason Lucifer could not understand why God would not prefer beautiful angels, creatures of light, to muddy and clumsy humans. Lucifer as the “saint patron” of the philosophers...

The other body ignored or despised by the philosopher is the social body. Just like the personal physical body, the social body is binding, heavy, banal, rude, messy, coarse, immediate, etc. What is common is bad, what is special is good. What is distant is beautiful, what is close is ugly. What is perceived is determined, what is thought is freedom. Of course, once again, such a cliché of the intellectual cannot pretend in any form to establish some kind of absolute prism, but as a general “thumb rule”, it works pretty well, and is useful to understand our own functioning, as one more of the classical dualisms inhabiting man’s existence. To understand for example our own tendency not to trust anyone but ourself, the fundamental mistrust against common opinion, a suspicion that seems to inhabit at different degrees all human minds.

Last but not least, the other manner in which the intellect denies life is in its relationship to feelings. Let us take one which is common and is often a reason not to philosophize: empathy. Empathy, like compassion, love, pity and others are the social feelings that make us human, that make us livable. But the intellect, like any other mental functioning, by privileging its own activity tends to ignore, diminish, deny, frustrate or suppress other types of activities, especially if they are not of the same nature. And indeed, to analyze and conceptualize, and to demand from someone that he does so, to search and expose truth, to question, can be and most likely will be painful and contrary to social feelings that would rather prefer to ease things for our neighbor. Of course, the partisans of “wholeness”, another form of omnipotence connected to the “new age” trend, or persons indulging in some form of “psychologism”, will claim that these two activities combine very well. But from our own experience, those “humanists” tend to project their own fears and ideas on the adults or children they deal with, expressing more than anything else a lack of trust toward their own intellectual identity, and from then a mistrust toward the intellectual identity of others, a very common phenomenon. There again, feelings seem to constitute basic life principles, a common way to behave, and philosophizing takes the appearance of a forced and artificial activity, often with a demanding, therefore harsh and brutal connotation. They forget that philosophy, like any martial art, cannot avoid tripping, falling and bruising. And that is probably the way it teaches us to grow, through dealing with reality.

These different specificities of the intellect can be covered by an existential concept that is dear to us: authenticity. And in spite of its existential connotation, we claim that authenticity is a form of death. To be authentic, means to radicalize our position, to dare articulate it, to accomplish it without constantly looking behind our shoulder: authenticity has no need to justify itself. A good reason for others to qualify it as haughty and arrogant. This extreme singularization is one of the main reasons explaining the ostracism against the philosopher, although it can as well be the cause for his glorification. The cynics are a good example of this case, who dare think and express what they think, without any consideration for established customs, principles, morals and opinions. They show disrespect for everything considered sacred by their entourage and fellow citizens. Of course, this can only take them on a confrontation course, or isolation. They appear rigid and dogmatic, when in order to survive one has to be flexible and adapt. One can even accuse them of falling into a pathological type of behavior, suicidal like. And if they are accused of making mince meat out of the people they encounter, one should not overlook the fact that they make mince meat out of themselves as well. If only because of the perpetual state of war they are de facto engaged in, although that is not their purpose: it simply derives from their incapability to pretend and play social games. But as well because their own person is denied in favor of something more important, some transcendent concept, be it truth, nature or else, a concept they might not even be willing to pronounce, but to which they are willing to sacrifice everything including themselves. The only reason they appear like faithless outlaws is because they don’t accept half-measures and compromises. When we observe the daily forms of conversation, we observe how most dialogues are composed of three main ingredients: small talk about weather and gossip, self-glorification and self-justification, and obtaining some practical advantage from someone. The authenticity of the philosopher is in a total rupture with this scheme: small talk is boring, one has no need to glorify and justify himself, dialogue should have only to do with transcendent preoccupations. If not, it is better to keep silent and shut up the interlocutor.

The allegory of the cave captures well the two frequent distinct attitudes the common man maintains toward the philosopher: laughter and anger. Laughter because he acts in a strange way, anger because there is the suspicion—or the certitude—he knows something the others don’t know: envy. This description fits the philosopher defined as another person, but what about the philosopher within oneself? How do we relate to him? Let us examine how this inner philosopher—this daemon as Socrates calls it—stops us from living. We can answer this question indirectly by stating that in the general educational process, parents will simply not encourage this kind of preoccupation or world outlook in their offspring. For the simple reason that a child with this kind of attitude would generally be perceived as carrying a sort of handicap: he would be clumsy, not really inhabiting his self, not being practical, being bothersome, etc. In other words, he would not seem to be preparing himself with the struggling that most people consider life to be, even when they don’t claim it openly. One has to adapt, one has to be practical, to be outcome minded. Especially today, at a time where economic competition rages fiercely, engaging oneself in philosophical preoccupation does not seem to provide the most useful preparation for life. It seems at best to be a luxury, at worse a threat. We observe this frequently in our work with children, where one of the main objections against philosophy we encounter is that learning thinking takes time and there are more urgent matters to deal with. While we are on this topic, we can add that secondary to the first objection but still important is the suspicion that the child would be destabilized or troubled by this kind of activity. His child life would be inhibited by the activity of thinking, which could only provoke anguish and unsettle him. Life is considered hard enough, without having to think about terrible things; so let the child be a child, they say... Probably the adult as well... Thus, beside the actual difficulties of thinking, as we have already examined it, is the suspicion that the kinds of thought that would come about would be destructive. Which in a way is most likely true. A path that takes us with the next contradiction between life and philosophy: the issue of problematization.


Page created: 16.03.09. Page last modified: 18.11.09 14:41.