To philosophize is to cease living

by Oscar Brenifier, February 2009


Discuss / diskuter


Thinking the unthinkable

One of the important skills of philosophy is the capacity to problematize. Through questions and objections, one is supposed to critically examine given ideas or theses, in order to escape the trap of evidence. This “evidence” is constituted by a body of knowledge and beliefs that philosophers call “opinions”: ideas that are not reasoned, they are merely established by habit, hearsay or tradition. Thus, when engaging in the philosophical process, one must examine the limits and falsity of any given opinion and envisage other possibilities of thinking, which at a first glance or to common thinking seems odd, nonsensical or even dangerous. In order to do this, one has to suspend his judgment, as Descartes invites us to do, and not trust usual emotions and convictions. Further on, through his “method”, he asks us to undergo some mental process that for him guarantees to obtain a more reliable kind of knowledge, which he calls “evidence”, in opposition to some kind of established opinion, be it vulgar or scholar. In order to be reliable, this “evidence” has to be able to withstand doubt, avoid precipitation and prejudice, and take clear and distinct forms. With the dialectical method, be it in Plato, Hegel or others, the work of criticism or negativity goes further, since it is necessary to be able to think the contrary of a proposition in order to understand it, evaluate it and go beyond it; any possibility of “evidence” therefore disappears. Of course, to put into effect such cognitive procedures, one needs to be in a certain mental state, to have a specific kind of attitude, composed of distance and critical perspective.

This attitude is very demanding, it knows many obstacles. Sincerity for example is such an obstacle to this attitude, so is good conscience and subjectivity, that must give up their tight hold on the mind. More radically, the moral principles, cognitive postulates and psychological needs that guide us in life have to be put in parenthesis, submitted to a harsh critic and even rejected, which of course does not happen naturally since it produces certain pain and anguish, unless one is capable to take distance from himself. To split oneself, as Hegel suggests, as a condition of real thinking, as a condition for conscience. And in order to accomplish such a shift in attitude, one has to die to oneself, give up, even momentarily, what is dearest to him, idea wise, emotion wise. “Biologically, I cannot do this!” answered me once a Spanish professor when I asked her to problematize her position on some subject. She had quite well perceived the problem, without visibly being fully conscious of the intellectual consequences of her outcry. Our life, our being, seems to be founded on certain established principles that are non negotiable. Thus, if thinking implies to problematize as a condition of deliberation, therefore one indeed has to die in order to think. And if we observe how persons involved in a discussion get heated up when contradicted, and resort to extreme positions and strategies in order to defend their ideas, including the most blatant bad faith, we can conclude that indeed, in general, abandoning one’s own ideas represents a sort of small death.

One can wonder why we so eagerly refuse to abandon an idea even for a moment, why so much resistance to such a short interlude of problematization, as we regularly encounter when such a demand is formulated. At least for adults, since this does not seem to be as much of a problem for children, less conscious of the implications and consequences of such an “artificial” counterpoint position. One insight we have on this matter is provided by Heidegger, through the status he gives speech: “Language is the house of being”, says he. For him, to speak is to make something appear in its being, we could therefore say that speech provides existence. Of course, for man, a being of language par excellence, this is rather obvious all though often denied, for example by the common objection “These are only words”. Without histories, myths and history, without narration and dialogue, what would we be? Certainly not human beings! Therefore, what we say about ourselves, be it in the form of narration—mythos—or in the form of ideas and explanations—logos—is indispensable and dear to us. To prove the importance of speech, we just have to observe how we feel threatened when our speech is ignored or contradicted; suddenly we pretend to be so preoccupied by truth! Actually, our real worry bears upon our own image, our self that we have laboriously and painstakingly constructed, a self that pretends to master his own production, a self that has strong pretensions to detaining knowledge, experience, reason, i.e. a valuable self... Our image is an idol to which we are willing to sacrifice anything; no oblation is too excessive. So when philosophy or a specific philosopher invites us to examine the shallowness, absurdity or vanity of our own thoughts, our whole being reacts strongly, instinctively, without having to think about it, as a mere survival reaction. The spinozian conatus, our desire to persevere in existence takes over our thirst for truth, our desire for being specific, for existence, is ready to deny any form of otherness, deny reason itself. The person, this empirically constructed self, feels threatened in its very existence by the faceless, indentityless being. To problematize our innermost thoughts, our fundamental principles, to slightly give up or freely examine those postulates we have stated or defended sometimes for many years, becomes an intolerable position. Our ideas are us, we are our ideas. And such a modus vivendi should not be seen simply as a form of stubbornness. After all, how could we position ourselves and act in society if we did not have such an attachment? How could we commit ourself to any life project, if we did not pledge allegiance to some fundamental principles? How would we exist, without some regulatory ideals guiding our life, however distant we are from realizing them? If man is the thinking being, he is a being of ideas. The only problem here is that if ideas are tools for thinking, too often the means is taken for the end and the ideas becomes an obstacle for the thinking. Therefore, to problematize is the attempt to reestablish the primacy of thinking over ideas, a task which is not easy to accomplish, since the empirical self has a hard time to give way to the transcendent self. To give up specific ideas is a form of death, thinking is therefore like dying.


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