To philosophize is to cease living

by Oscar Brenifier, February 2009


Discuss / diskuter


More important things to do

In certain cultures, the philosopher maintains a real status, he is admired, for his knowledge, for his wisdom, for his depth, for he seems to have access to a reality that is denied to the common mortal. In other cultures, on the contrary, he is viewed as a useless being, suspicious, awkward or even perverted. To come back to Thales and the servant girl, some societies give more room to the celestial perspective than others, and some societies are more earthly than others. The second case is generally manifested through different forms. First possibility: philosophy is rather absent from the cultural matrix, or is reduced to a strict minimum in terms of its importance in the collective psyche. Second possibility: philosophy is viewed as an enemy, since it undermines the postulates and principles guiding this society, by introducing doubt and critical thinking. Third possibility: philosophy adapts to the cultural matrix, anchors itself in material preoccupation, in order to stop the thinking from escaping into some kind of ethereal reality. Of course, those three aspects can easily combine, the Anglo-American culture being a good case of this. Be it in the USA or the UK, philosophy is a rather weak cultural endeavor. It is often viewed as a threat against established political, economic and religious postulates. And its philosophical tradition tends to remain within the realm of empirical and material reality, as we historically see in the schools of empiricism, utilitarianism and pragmatism.

This third aspect, a specific form of philosophy, is therefore not accidental. The issue here is one of axiology. What are the values of a given society? What is the hierarchy of values around which this society is organized? We can here be reminded of the famous painting by Raphael: the school of Athens, which shows Plato pointing at the heavens and Aristotle pointing toward the earth, while different philosophers seem concerned with different issues. The history of philosophy is nothing but a series of statements and rebuttals, accompanied by some epistemological considerations on the methods and procedures used in order to prove different points. Therefore the criticism of philosophy or rejection of philosophy is still operating within the realm of philosophy, because it is always only the criticism or the rejection of a specific and particular form of philosophy. Philosophy produces its own criticism and strives on its own criticism. This is the reason why philosophy can claim as its own any form of anti-philosophy, be it religious, scientific, psychological, political, traditional, literary, etc. For it seems, as we are subjectively willing to claim it, that man cannot escape philosophy, no more than he can escape faith or art. The only parameters that change are the values adopted, the methods used, the attitudes taken and the degree of consciousness. Man creates his own reality, and this production of reality has philosophical content. The meaning of man’s accomplishments may differ, the desire to determine the meaning may vary, the relationship to meaning may change, the relative importance given to meaning may oppose the importance given to “factual” observations, but whatever we do, we cannot escape meaning, because man is a rational animal, and he cannot escape reason. This signifies that he interprets, he judges, he evaluates, he subjectively decides which degree and nature of reality he grants to reality, he sets the standard for what truth is, and we can state that reality and truth are nothing but concepts, human constructions or inventions. Even when man declares that reality escapes him, because it is materially bound, objectively defined or God given, he makes a commitment, he engages himself into a defined set of values.

In other words, the servant girl is as much an interlocutor—and in a way as much a philosopher—as Thales, even though she looks a lot like our next door neighbor. Which brings us back to the issue of “vulgar” philosophy and “elitist” philosophy. Because philosophy is an attempt to step out, to go beyond, but those spatial transformations cannot make any sense without the this-sidedness of things. Thales is meaningless without the servant girl, strangely enough she is his “alter ego”: she is just another ego! Without the dialogue and the tension between those two postures, Thales becomes meaningless, the girl becomes uninteresting. Let us here bring back the allegory of the cave. Why does the philosopher come back to the cave, in Plato’s allegory? He comes back to die! He cannot stay outside, looking at the pure light, even though he would prefer to be a slave in this enlightened world rather than a king in the darkness. But Plato cannot help it, he cannot not propose to bring this man back in the cave, just like if some fatality obliged him to this forced dialogue, to this confrontation, to this death. There is no philosophy without “agon”, claims Nietzsche. The agon being in the Greek tragedy the moment of confrontation, of drama, of tension. It is, ambiguously and paradoxically, destructive and constructive. Thinking is a dialogue with oneself, claims Plato, and there cannot be dialogue if there is no distance, no gap, no interval, if there is no confrontation.

Here, our claim is that by adopting the position that there is more important or more urgent things to do than philosophy, we are already in the philosophical debate. Even by forgetting that philosophy exists, we are in the philosophical field. The role of the philosopher, like the one of the artist, is to point, to show, to indicate. Foucault claims that if the scientist makes the invisible visible, the philosopher makes the visible visible. Once one has seen, he can accept he has seen, he can deny he has seen, he can forget he has seen, but his eyes are not the same anymore, the world is not the same anymore: he can no longer claim some kind of virginity. Philosophy makes fire out of all woods. In dialogue, the philosopher always wins, just by engaging the dialogue with the other. But he does not win in the way of the rhetorician; we should not confuse philosophy and eristic. In dialogue, the philosopher wins in two ways: by getting the other one to see something, and by seeing what the other one sees. This is why dialogue is so fundamental for philosophy. This is why Socrates so adamantly and relentlessly pursued his fellow human beings in the streets of Athens, and claimed no more fundamental interest in life than examining the minds of his fellow humans, delving into their souls. He claimed to find truth there. How is this possible? Was he surrounded exclusively by prophets or wise men? Not if we look at the dialogues, where Socrates looks much smarter than his interlocutors. Our proposal is that Socrates found truth in those people because they gave him the possibility to abandon himself, to die to himself. By entering those strange and foreign souls, he was able to confront himself, as a kind of ascetic pursuit, just like the fighter or the soldier needs an opponent in order to challenge himself, to go beyond himself, to become himself, to die to himself.

If we look at the history of philosophy, we have another reading of this matter. At its origin, philosophy was everything thinking was concerned with: knowledge on all topics: nature, religion, wisdom, ethics and even practical know-how. And indeed, there was a strong connotation of omnipotence in this activity at the time, both in terms of theoretical and practical knowledge. We can here remind ourselves of Hippias the sophist telling Socrates that everything he bore on him he had made himself. Or Callicles, that explained that through his art of rhetoric, the strong could take over the weak, or again Gorgias, that pretended he could convince anyone of whatever he wanted. There are not limits to intellectual pretensions, hubris rules. Truth there does not have a stand, neither does common reason, nor any regulating principle; it is the law of the jungle. The only reality of the speech is the subject and his desires. Then, of course, the erudite will criticize our words, saying that philosophy was born out a rejection of those conceptions, as a search for the true and the good, accusing us of willfully confusing the philosopher and the sophist. But our claim is that sophism is nothing but a specific school of philosophy, and in fact through the relativist and amoralist—or immoralist—stand they proclaimed, they were precursors of many more modern strands of thought. And the pretension to omnipotence of the sophists, even though it takes later on other forms, has remained as a characteristic feature of the over bloated self-image of the philosopher, which in his time Socrates was trying to take on, correctly so. By stating those were not philosophers, from our standpoint Plato was essentially right but formally wrong. Although he knew this, he recognized the proximity of two species, as indicates his analogy on the subject: he claimed that the philosopher compared to the sophist like the dog to the wolf, or the wolf to the dog...

Throughout history, philosophy lost a lot of its domain: science of nature—physics, astronomy, biology, etc.—and science of the mind—psychology—are the striking historical losses of philosophy, to which we could add many other more secondary specialties: linguistics, grammar, logic, sociology, etc. Strangely enough, as soon as a particular field wanted to claim some certitude, it abandoned philosophy and establish itself as what we call now a science, a knowledge constituted of objective “irrefutable” evidence, founded on facts and figures, observation and experimentation. Philosophy could therefore claim only the “problematic”, as Kant calls it: what is merely possible. But philosophers, like their sophist ancestors, do not want to give up certitudes. The result is that today, the type of certitudes they are left with and claim are of three kinds: certitude of a world outlook, with political, social, spiritual or other content, certitudes of historical knowledge on ideas, schools and authors, rather academic, and certitude on how to think, bearing on method and epistemology. And post-modernism, with its rejection of any universality, has just managed to create a “new” type of certitude: a omnipotent figure of the subjectivity, finally quite cousin to the one of the sophist.

With all this, we are trying to justify that the “agon” principle is consubstantial to the philosophical activity, and not only the “agon” but the “agony”, this slow endless dying to oneself. And even if many “moments” of the philosophical history have pretended to have provided some kind of definitive answer to the previous endless debate, there was always some “new” claim emerging, ready to “kill” that “definitive” thesis. Hegel had forged this concept of “moment”, and he tried to show us how each “moment”, as it followed and refuted the previous moment, participated to reaching some kind of absolute, that of course he himself had been able to discern. But in a funny way, his claim to the absolute, his “inviting himself at the table of the divine”—the criticism he held against Shelling—is part of the process, and even a necessary step of it. The criticism launched by Marx against this hyper idealist dialectics was therefore only a lawful and necessary reaction. The other aversive reaction to such a absolutist vision was American pragmatism. And if those two schools of thought have determined in large the future of humanity, intellectually, culturally, politically, etc. the latter is of course still largely hegemonic. But if we retain a common criteria to both these inverted avatars of “traditional” philosophy, we will mention the advocating of reason as “common”, belonging to some immanent process, and not to some transcendental power. Once again, the philosopher had to die: he theoretically cannot claim some “god given” or “spirit given” power: he has to answer to some property that belongs to everyone, as Descartes coined it already when he wrote that “Reason is the thing in the world that is the most widely shared”. And this anti-elitism is probably, when faced to it, one of the most humiliating and inhuman experience for the philosopher. And probably, for the same reason, one of the most fundamental philosophical experiences. Unlearning, called it Socrates. Philosophizing with a hammer, called it Nietzsche. It could be called : “The triumph of the servant girl”.


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