Philosophy’s Impasse and the Animal Within

Is there a coherent perspective today from which to argue that philosophy is not merely an academic discipline but a way of life?

To answer that question, we must understand the differences between the contemporary philosophical context and the ancient philosophers who believed that only philosophy could provide the insight and motivations for the best possible human life. (John Cooper’s introduction to Pursuits of Wisdom is essential in understanding the difference between the Ancients and the context today.) Many of these ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers believed that reason itself is our most powerful motivation. They argued that if one is in possession of the correct philosophical account of what is good for human beings, that insight by itself was sufficient to motivate us to pursue a life of virtue and happiness in accordance with those reasons. Thus, someone who possesses genuine knowledge is incapable of doing wrong.

To modern ears this sounds simply naïve. For us there is a psychological gap between reason and motivation, between preferences and the good. We might know what is good for us, but it is not only psychologically possible but rather common for us to act contrary to that knowledge.

That naïve psychology is not the only difference separating the ancients from the moderns.

As Cooper notes, there are two additional assumptions that get the ancient Greek notion of philosophy as a way of life off the ground. One is that philosophy is the perfection of reason. Reality was thought to have a logical structure and only philosophical reason with its commitment to logic can ascertain that structure. Because that logical/metaphysical structure included values as constituent elements, philosophy was required to understand the nature of the good life. Today, most philosophers don’t believe the good for humanity, let alone the good for individuals, is part of the ontological structure of reality. Although various forms of moral realism are alive and well, they must flourish alongside the widely accepted notion that science describes the most fundamental features of reality. Since values are not part of a science-based ontology, this leaves a very large puzzle about the status of values as fundamental constituents of reality. To put the point differently, today, philosophy must compete with empirical inquiry and mathematics to earn credentials as the perfection of reason. Unlike the ancients, philosophy can no longer guarantee the conceit that only it as has access to reality’s bones and sinews.

Finally, Cooper notes that ancient philosophers witnessed the emergence of the “I” of consciousness as something that must be nurtured. They understood the self to be separate from the natural world, yielding a feeling of not being at home in it. Thus, the self required purification and salvation, and many of the Hellenistic philosophers engaged in spiritual exercises that moved the ancient philosophical discourse toward Christianity, as Pierre Hadot has emphasized.

All of these assumptions that were at the foundation of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy are either outright rejected by modern philosophy or are deeply contentious and problematic. Thus, one could argue that there is no longer a basis for linking philosophy to the conduct of life. Modern metaphysics has not arrived at settled truths that could be a guide to life, and modern notions of the self do not see it as something that could be purified or be made available for salvation. No doubt, the study of ethics provides insight into the conduct of life, but it isn’t obvious how that grabs onto our motivational states or how logical patterns of thought are related to happiness or life satisfaction.

Thus, modern philosophy seems ill-equipped to address this urgent question of how one should live. But if philosophy can’t provide guidance on questions of how to live, who can? Only philosophy makes the study of human values its main theme. Yet, I doubt that the ancient way of understanding reality is going to make a comeback.

Thus, we are at an impasse.

From my point of view, the mistake that leads to this impasse was made long ago and continues today. Both the ancients and the moderns think that our capacity for reason, self-awareness, or language separate us from the rest of nature. To the contrary, reason, self-awareness, and language are as much a part of nature as bacteria, birds, and bears. If we are to make sense of the “perfection of reason” it will be because we can acknowledge the continuities between humanity and nature and uncover reason’s dependence on the animal within.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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