Caring thinking about caring thinking

by Oscar Brenifier, April 2008
Revision and suggestions by Janette Poulton


Discuss / diskuter


Noble and mundane philosophy

Once we have established that “caring” has always been consubstantial to philosophy, let us now examine closer what has been the shift of paradigm in the nature of “caring”, primarily in its object, since that is the place where lies the ambiguity, as outlined earlier in our text. Lipman is right to say that there are different values in the philosophical tradition, which of course imply different types of “caring”. In the classical tradition, heritage of the Greeks, we primarily observe the importance of the transcendental concepts: truth, good, beauty, etc. Any other object of preoccupation, more “personal”, is of a lesser value. A vision that does not imply that there is no personal engagement, on the contrary. The classical Greek conception of man as a citizen is a good example of this specific commitment. In such a context the “person”—if such a concept makes sense here—is not its own finality: it is deeply involved, body, mind and soul, reason and passion, in the realization of what it conceives as the crucial ideal or goal to pursue, for which he accepts to be a mere “tool”, be this goal very abstract or extramundane.

The historical major rupture with such a “noble” perspective, where the abstract concept comes first, before the person, comes in the Roman period, in a transformation probably connected to the emergence of Middle Eastern thinking, more specifically the Judaeo-Christian culture. Philosophy then emerged as a form of “consolation”, as we find it explicitly in Boethius, or as a practice as in Seneca and the later stoics, such as Marcus Aurelius. The irony is that the idea of philosophy as a mere instrument for making man happy or feeling better comes at a period viewed as decadent from the standpoint of culture and philosophy. We are not in the pursuit of great schemes anymore, but in a “humanistic” vision where one is concerned primarily with his own daily existence. Therefore, the concern with the other comes primarily as a concern for one self. And it is true that as we progress along the centuries, man becomes more and more his own finality, his own goal, as Kant will specify later on. The emergence of pragmatism, in its criticism of idealism and intellectualism—the main enemy at the time being in particular Hegel—inscribes itself in this modernizing tradition. The claim is the following: What is the use of philosophy if it cannot solve daily problems? Ironically enough, Marx is in that very tradition as well, as expressed in his famous quote: “Until now philosophers have interpreted the world, now they have to change it”. But the question thus imposing itself, as we have already raised while criticizing Nussbaum, is then: Is this merely a descriptive perspective, or is it a normative one? Is this historical process good and desirable, or is it merely the way that things take place? It is true that today, the idea of dying for a cause is not the most widespread western philosophical vision of the world: it would rather be viewed as primitive or backward, or a mere worse case scenario. “Discussion” or “dialogue”, and particular concepts such as “intersubjectivity”, are trendy if not obligatory. The tenants of anti-philosophy, the rogue cynic or the brutal Zen master, with their systematic refusal to explain, would be perceived as relics of another age (see our article on Nasruddin Hodja). Truth, beauty or any form of absolute would be viewed as out of date or signs of dogmatism. Concepts always have to be “person related” or “place related”, if not “case related”. The death of Socrates could therefore be viewed as a pathological suicidal behavior. This posture makes a lot of sense, since in general, the concepts that don’t belong to us are the ones who incarnate or reflect dogmatism. The problem is always with the foreigner, with the other, with the strange person who deviates from what we think is right or normal. Which is probably the reason why Plato, in his later dialogues, insightfully introduces as the main character “The stranger”, who replaces Socrates as the questioning person. He provides us with the key to this choice by explaining that “When the gods come to visit men, they always take the form of the foreigner”. And as we all know, gods are inhuman: they have little respect for men and their petty lives. Thus our modern philosophy practitioner will precisely criticize Socrates as being somewhat heartless with his witty irony and devastating sarcasm. Was Socrates not caring? Surely he cared, but about truth more than about the “person”. Who would care about the person, this mere theater mask! He had observed that men often use their own person as an obstacle to truth, which can account for his disrespectful attitude. He delicately tries to explain this recurrent phenomenon by calling it forgetfulness, or ignorance, and so the philosopher, the foreigner has to remind the poor fellow of his own alienated nature. That for him is caring, or respect...


Page created: 26.01.09. Page last modified: 18.11.09 14:41.