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Tallis in Wonderland

Problems & Mysteries

Raymond Tallis says mystery is the heart of philosophy.

A couple of years ago I addressed the delicate question of whether or not philosophy makes progress (‘The “P” Word’, Philosophy Now 113, 2016). The question is more complicated than could justify a straight ‘Yes’ or a straight ‘No’ answer.

It might at first seem that progress in philosophy should be like progress in any other theoretical discipline, namely reaching agreed-upon solutions to problems. By that criterion, there are few branches of philosophy which can be regarded as a success. But of course, things are not that simple. There are other markers of progress. One is the capacity of philosophy to transform its problems into something possibly more complex, definitely more interesting, and most importantly, less in the grip of the presuppositions of everyday life. Philosophy is at least as much about creating problems as solving them. If, ultimately, philosophy is about waking up to, and even out of, our ordinary wakefulness, it cannot be just a matter of solving problems. Waking up is more than receiving answers to questions.

Even so, the question of the purpose serious pursuit?

This is a question that Western philosophy tried to head off at its very beginning, when Plato asserted through the mouth of Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. And the version of the examined life he had in mind was that of a life like his own – one preoccupied by fundamental questions about the ultimate nature of things, many or most of these questions without obvious practical value or answers we would regard as useful. Of course, some philosophy has endeavoured to be a guide to life – political philosophy, ethics and meta-ethics included – but much of it has not. This is a constant critique of the Platonic defence of philosophy. In my four decades as a doctor, few (if any) of the tens of thousands of patients I met – many of whom were entirely admirable people living truly worthwhile lives – had the slightest interest in the kinds of philosophical problems I have wrestled with since I was a teenager.

The question of the seriousness of philosophy bears down on us more heavily as we become ever more aware of the remediable suffering in the world. When migrants fleeing from tyranny and destitution are drowning in their thousands as they try to cross to Europe for freedom and the hope of a better or at least a tolerable life; when hundreds of millions of our fellow humans work in conditions that are accurately described as slavery; when the most powerful man in the world is a sexist, racist toddler with an astonishing capacity for lies; and (on my home front) when the British government has for nearly a decade been tearing apart the fabric of our welfare state and the public services that mark our collective decency – arguing about the reality of objects in the outside world may seem frivolous. Philosophical questions start to look like questions you stop asking when things get serious. “Quick! Call a metaphysician!” rarely, if ever, seems an appropriate response to a crisis.

Philosophy Past & Present

It would of course be entirely unjust to philosophy to deny its important influence over the conversation humanity has had with itself about matters of the utmost practical significance. There are instances of direct influence. John Locke on the US Constitution, and the philosophes of the eighteenth century on the Enlightenment that led to personal liberation and inspired the principles of liberal democracy, are two particularly obvious examples, but there are many others. The interactions between intellectual history and the wider history of humanity are often complex, and other influences may be indirect. The broadening of the Golden Rule – ‘Do unto others as you would wish others to do unto you’ – to the Kantian Categorical Imperative – the universalization of any moral law to something that applies equally and unconditionally to all rational beings – was itself an indirect product of Immanuel Kant’s seemingly purely theoretical inquiries into the relationship between mind, world, freedom, and our moral nature. René Descartes’ division between a non-physical mind and a machine-like body was an important contribution to the framework for future biological sciences and the understanding of our organic body that underpins so much of medicine. And – to go back to the beginning of Western philosophy – the habit of questioning one’s ideas and subjecting one’s life to Socratic examination has been the motor of much human thought, and of the challenge to received ideas that has been central to human intellectual and perhaps moral progress. Kant’s characterization of the Enlightenment as humanity’s “emancipation from self-imposed immaturity” and the associated commitment to thinking for oneself could be applied to much of philosophy.

Even so, the deliberations of contemporary professional philosophers seem to play a relatively small part in our intellectual and civic life, whether it is challenging received ideas in the natural sciences, defending universal human rights, and/or mending the torn fabric of civilization. The more sophisticated the inquiry, the less impact it seems to have. Derek Parfit’s monumental 1,400 page defence of a particular form of utilitarian ethics does not seem to have been required reading for those responsible for the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and is unlikely to have influenced the disgraced British businessman Sir Philip Green when he weighed the relative priority of owning a second yacht versus treating with minimal decency the members of his failing company’s pension scheme. John Rawls’ classic work A Theory of Justice (1971) was most lauded in academe precisely while his notion of distributive justice and his brilliant arguments concerning the role of the state in mitigating the lottery of life were being trashed by the irresistible rise of neo-liberal politics and the unashamed worship of greed that would benefit few and damage many.

Questions Ask Philosophers

While we must not entirely dismiss the beneficial influence of philosophy in the practical sphere, we need to look elsewhere for the significance and indeed importance of much of what professional philosophers get up to. To guide our search, we must acknowledge that philosophical inquiry arises out of and returns to something that is not reducible to problems amenable to solution. That something is Mystery – in particular the mystery of Being and of the place of our human being in the order of things. The problems that exercise philosophers are ways of gaining a hand-hold on the smooth surface of these mysteries.

The difference between problems and mysteries has been well expressed by the French Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel:

“A problem is something which I meet which I find completely before me, but which I can lay siege to and reduce. But a mystery is something in which I am myself involved, and it can therefore only be thought of as a sphere where the distinction between what is in me and what is before me loses its meaning and initial validity.” (Being and Having, 1949).

Problems are localized and ‘out there’, whereas mysteries enclose us.

There are many ways of capturing this. Anthony Morgan and the interviewees in his brilliant book The Kantian Catastrophe? (2017) explore the double nature of humanity as being “a world-constituting subjectivity” and yet discovering itself as something in that world.

In the light of this double nature, addressing the most fundamental philosophical problems seems an endeavour to transcend ourselves that would make Baron Munchhausen’s famous feat of lifting himself and his carriage by his own hair look unimpressive. When we investigate Being we are a minute part of that Being; our philosophical inquiries into time take time (nearly a decade in my case); and thoughts about thought take the form of thought. As always with ontology, metaphysics, and epistemology (the studies of the nature of being, reality, and knowledge respectively, and for me the most interesting areas of philosophy), we are attempting to engage with something that engulfs every part of ourselves. We are soluble fish endeavouring to grasp the sea. It is not in the least surprising therefore that we do not ‘solve’ the mysteries of which we are ourselves a (very small) part, and that while the philosophical questions may undergo transformation, they do not go away; that they continue to ask us.

To say this is not defeatism, or expressing a patience that is excessive in view of the shortness of our lives. Living without the expectation of ending our inquiries is not a reason for not starting them. The endeavour to ‘unknow’ the apparently secure knowledge that enables one to glide through life without touching the sides for the sake of greater wakefulness, is not something that has a natural conclusion; nor would one want it to arrive at such. As the great Czech thinker and political dissident Tomasz Halik has pointed out, “there are questions so important that it is a pity to spoil them with answers.” Halik has also asserted “God is mystery – that should be the first and last sentence of any theology” (Patience with God, 2009). If we replace ‘God’ with ‘human life’, then the same applies to philosophy.

The Purposes Of Philosophy

The appropriate defence of philosophy is that, like art, like love, or like wakefulness, it is an end in itself. Even so, when so many lack the wherewithal for survival, activities that belong to the Kingdom of Ultimate Ends always sit uneasily next to those that belong to the Kingdom of Means. A lyric poet agonizing over her choice of words in a poem about childhood looks indefensible in a world where children are starving, beaten, and worked to death. “To speak of trees” Berthold Brecht famously said, “is to pass over many crimes in silence.” And the same applies to speaking of, say, qualia. Even so, pursuing the nature of consciousness down endless arguments and counter-arguments and a million footnotes is no more vulnerable to criticism than is aiming at perfection in art or music.

Also, notwithstanding my earlier somewhat pessimistic observations on the practical consequences of philosophy, there are more powerful defences of its unique contribution to the million-stranded dialogue humanity has had with itself. It is entirely plausible to ascribe to philosophy beneficial effects in the Kingdom of Means. For instance, Parmenides’ mad vision of a homogeneous, unchanging, unified world prompted the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus that has become the most profound and fruitful of all scientific ideas. And, at a more homely level, the standards of rigour and transparency that are expected in philosophical arguments may have had an even wider positive impact on the human conversation.

You may suspect that you have been eavesdropping on a long-running not yet settled argument I have had with myself. Your suspicions are well-founded.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2018

Raymond Tallis’ Of Time and Lamentation: Reflections on Transience is out now. His Logos: The Mystery of How We Make Sense of the World will be out soon.

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