To philosophize is to cease living

by Oscar Brenifier, February 2009


Discuss / diskuter


To be no one

Odysseus is a real hero for Socrates, most likely his favorite one, as he defends it in the Lesser Hippias dialogue. The main reason for this stand is that Odysseus is “no one”, as he tells Polyphemus the Cyclops. He is nowhere and somewhere, he deals with men and gods, who fight over him, he is shrewd but is at the mercy of powerful forces, he is a leader and a lonesome man, he always longs for what he is not, he is elusive, even to himself, his life is constantly on the brink. He seems to be the Mediterranean version of the classical Taoist vision of life, which we can summarize in the following way: he who preoccupies himself mainly about his life and is too attached to life does not live, not so much because this worry will undermine his joy of living, but because it blocks and corrupts vitality, the very source of life. This idea that life—endless procession of small preoccupations, tensions and rigidities about “small things”—is an obstacle to vitality, offers the existential equivalent that ideas are an obstacle to thinking. Vitality does not cling to life; thinking does not cling to ideas. We get another echo of this in the figure of Christ: son of man, son of no one and everyone, born to die, who does not even have a stone to rest his head, as he told the scholar who wanted to follow him.

Thus, the essence of philosophy is dynamic, tragic and paradoxical. Be this in the passionate western tonality or in the detached eastern version, the challenge facing man through life and philosophy is to let go without giving up. But life as we know it has an aversion for letting go, a rigid posture for which the only alternative is all together giving up. Thus life is often summarized as a series of chronicle manic depressive cycles, which luckily or unluckily ends with death, the ultimate manic or depressive state, according to moods and circumstances.

The fundamental philosophical experience is an experience of otherness, and experience of other-sidedness, which can be lived only from the standpoint of a this-sidedness. The gap, the abyss, the fracture of being, the tension between finite and infinite, reality and desire, affirmation and negation, will and acceptance, are as many forms of the same experience. The eternal interplay between singularity, totality and transcendence. There are as many ways to describe what drives man to think and explore, and as many ways to obscure and deny what he looks for. Strangely enough, the history of philosophy has been constituted as a superposition of visions and systems pretending to complete, explain or reject the previous ones. All philosophical texts are mere footnotes added to Plato’s text, said someone. But if we already look at Plato’s text, it captures the paradox of philosophy. The initial drive of Plato’s work is to witness the story of a man who questioned more than he stated, a man who never wrote one line, as far as the story goes. But already, Plato starts to state, starts building a thesis founded on this man, or inspired by him, and wrote a lot. Immediately afterwards comes Aristotle, whom in our sense will set the frame for future western philosophy: a sort of encyclopedia of knowledge, including everything: natural sciences, political sciences, psychology, ethics, etc. Something solid and reliable... But like Socrates, we think philosophy is not reading or writing, since this has to do with mere objects: books, when philosophy has primarily to do with tackling the human soul. Then why do you write books, if you are against books, correctly objected someone once? Well, how can you unlearn if you have not learned? How can you burn books, if you have not written them? How can you die if you have not lived? And with dialectical reversal so common to philosophy, let us ask as well the following. How can you learn if you have not unlearned? How can you write books if you have not burnt them? How can you live if you have not died?

The only problem with philosophers, like with all human beings, is that they confuse or invert the means and the ends. For the very simple reason that one is closer to hand than the other. To be a professor, to have knowledge, to write books, to have a title, to have ideas, to be famous or important, to be bright, to be respected, to be recognized, as many possible consequences of philosophizing, as many obstacles to philosophizing. Because philosophers, like all men, want to exist, as philosophers. This is probably what motivates Socrates to quote Euripides in his discussion with Gorgias the sophist, when he says: Who knows if to live is not to die, and if on the other side to die is not to live.

That philosophizing is dying to the world, is a rather common idea. That philosophy is dying to oneself, is already more rare and strange. But if furthermore we state that philosophy implies the death of philosophy, we fall right into the absurd, where few people will want to accompany us. But we think that this is where philosophy is, is where it dies. That is probably the best definition we could give to philosophy as a practice, although it does not mean very much.

And right are the philosophers that criticize the concept of philosophical practice, claiming that philosophy is nothing but a practice. However multiple and contradictory are the forms that this practice can take. Even though the truth of the matter is that academic philosophers reject philosophical practice because it challenges the self and questions the person, having little if no respect for it.

But let us leave this at the momentarily concluding point of stating that the essence of philosophical practice is to do what is left to be undone, whatever we have done. Quite an unlivable regulatory idea! It must be philosophical... No one can do this... Definitely...

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