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The Life Philosophical

What is the Philosophical Experience?

Eldar Sarajlic philosophically considers what it is to do philosophy.

I am a philosopher and I think and write about various philosophical issues, both timely and timeless. Officially, I am a philosopher because I occasionally publish the results of these efforts, and also because I am a member of an academic community that recognizes me as such.

Being a philosopher, I presumably do philosophy, in the same way that carpenters do carpentry or dancers do dancing. If we want to know about the experience of doing carpentry, we need to look closely at what exactly carpenters do when they engage in carpentry. Carpentry seems to consist of a series of ideas about wooden constructions, and of actions that manipulate pieces of wood to create desired objects. But what exactly is the nature of philosophical activity? In other words, what does doing philosophy mean, exactly? Am I doing philosophy right now, while writing this article, for example? Or was it something I did last night when I first figured out how to answer the question in the title of this article?

Reflections & Judgments

Philosophy is an old discipline, and there is such a mountain of published philosophical work that no single human could manage to read it all in his or her lifetime. However, becoming a philosopher must involve getting acquainted with at least some parts of this written tradition. Indeed, the path to philosophy leads to a fair amount of reading: we have to read how others did philosophy before we can hope of doing it well ourselves. But merely learning philosophy does not make one a philosopher. You could have an immense knowledge of philosophical literature without actually doing philosophy, or being a philosopher.

When I write, I try to recollect thoughts I had previously, or record ideas springing up in my mind during the very process of writing. Right now, I am doing something like that: I am trying to remember ideas I had last night, order them in a certain way, and reflect on them once more before I attach final words and concepts to them on paper. But it would certainly be odd to think of philosophy as merely a writing activity. By that standard, Socrates, the father of our discipline, would not qualify, because he never wrote philosophy. Quite the contrary, philosophy precedes writing: it is something we write about, not something that we do by writing.

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It seems then that doing philosophy involves some reflective activity of the mind – an experience the philosopher goes through. But, what kind of experience? I see a glass of water on the table; it occurs to me that I am thirsty, and that by drinking this water I could quench my thirst. I reach for the glass and drink the water. The thoughts I had before drinking the water amount to an intellectual experience: I had to think about water, its properties, and its ability to satisfy my bodily needs. But this cannot be a philosophical experience, can it?

Some philosophers think that doing philosophy means making certain kinds of judgments. Immanuel Kant, for example, made a distinction between objective, subjective, and aesthetic judgments. An objective judgment is one made about observable reality: “There is a glass of water on my table.” By contrast, a subjective judgment records personal experience: “I don’t like the taste of this water.” There can be disagreement about objective judgments (someone could deny the existence of a glass of water on my table and argue that I’m hallucinating). However, there cannot be disagreement about my taste preferences. As a famous Latin proverb has it, de gustibus non est disputandum : ‘tastes are not up for debate’. Aesthetic judgments derive from personal experience but try to communicate a universally recognizable reality. They are based on individual experience, but they are public rather than private. Thus, a person’s experience of a Wagner opera, expressed as an aesthetic judgment, can be recognized and related to by others. In this sense, aesthetic judgments are both subjective in their experience, and objective in their shareability with the community. Indeed these days philosophers often call them ‘intersubjective’ judgements.

The Norwegian philosopher Steinar Bøyum says that philosophical experience is akin only to the aesthetic kind, and that philosophising consists of making aesthetic (or intersubjective) judgments – acts of communicating one’s experience of the world in a way that others can recognize and identify with. This is, moreover, a way of expressing and exploring the human condition.

What strikes me about this definition of philosophical experience is that it implies that communication itself is constitutive of philosophical activity: we are doing philosophy properly only when we share our thoughts with others in a public, but disinterested, way.

Judging Shared Judgments

While that may be a part of what doing philosophy means – I am writing this article to share it with you, after all – it seems to me that it omits something more fundamental that precedes acts of sharing: the individual activity of making judgments.

Indeed, communicating aesthetic judgments alone cannot be the essence of the philosophical experience. If it were, then we could program a computer to share aesthetic judgments, and its acts of sharing would then constitute its doing philosophy. The most we can say about sharing, I think, is that perhaps real philosophical activity means making shareable judgments – ones others could recognize. But in that case, we have to answer the question, what makes a judgment shareable? Is it merely the fact that others could accept it given the way they’re constituted as human beings? If so, then what is so important about acceptance that we should rest our entire concept of philosophy on it?

We could offer various answers to this question. For example, perhaps we believe that there is some mysterious innate bond between humans that enables us to perceive ourselves in others. Alternatively, we could believe that by identifying with shared judgments, we tap into a transcendental reality that typically escapes our everyday grasp of things. Or, as I prefer to think, all of us could recognize how things really are in the world, and having a philosophical experience means exercising that ability. So, here’s my claim: We do philosophy when we perceive how things are in the world. Philosophy is an exercise of getting in touch with reality, and philosophical experience is an experience of what is real.

‘Perceiving reality’ needs to be qualified, however. I do not mean merely perceiving reality, as in simply seeing a glass of water on the table. For a start, the reality of the glass is not exhausted by my experiencing its presence on my table. Many other aspects of it are part of its reality. For example, the glass, as a human artifact, has both a conceptual and practical history: it was invented, then produced, by somebody. This involves a myriad of human practices, from production to exchange and disposal. It may have symbolic value to me, or to someone else. It may be unknown or inaccessible to many people. And it may be useful for holding liquids (or it may not be). Philosophically perceiving how things are in the world means not only being responsive to data arriving in our minds through our senses, but also understanding the larger picture of objects’ existences.

As John Searle argued, every individual judgment is part of a background network of claims, judgments, and assumptions about the world. Being philosophically perceptive of reality means being able to situate our perception of individual objects or events within this network, and understand its relationship with other objects or events, both factually and in terms of values. So, I may perceive the glass as ‘worthy’ because it was made of crystal, and be upset if it breaks down; or I may be indifferent to its fate because I don’t value crystal that much. In either case, my judgment of it will refer to the system of values I am embedded in.

Philosophy Is Also Individual & Tragic

To do this type of perceiving and sharing, we indisputably need human society. But perceiving the glass, and making an aesthetic or value judgment about it, will necessarily be a solitary act. My act of philosophical experience must be made by me alone, cannot be made by others, and cannot be done together with them. This is because perception is individual, not collective. We may be looking at the glass together; but each of us has our own perceptual apparatus, and we must each make our own inferences and judgments about the glass.

This perhaps explains why most philosophers are solitary creatures. We enjoy sharing our philosophical experiences and insights; but we do philosophical thinking only when we are profoundly alone. There is something poetic about this. It shows that truth is a deeply personal thing, and that reckoning with reality to a great measure demands solitude.

It also shows that doing philosophy is not limited to professional philosophers. Philosophy is a genuinely democratic discipline, and anyone who practices philosophically perceiving things can legitimately be considered a philosopher. To that extent, it is not only an academic discipline, but an intellectual disposition – a way of being in the world. Philosophy is a virtue of humans who dare to seek the truth, no matter how hard and painful that truth turns out to be.

Indeed, perceiving how things really are is frequently tragic, as classical playwrights themselves perceived. Think of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, who does not rest content until he finds out the truth about the cause of the plague troubling Thebes. He does not stop searching for the truth even in the face of a creeping realization that he is the killer of his father and the husband of his mother. And once he finally perceives how things really are, he gouges out his own eyes, as if punishing himself for not being able to see the truth earlier, and exiles himself from the city, into solitude. Reckoning with reality can be a tough business.

“Philosophy,” as Plato famously put it, “begins in wonder” – but it often ends in tragedy. We tend to forget that truth is tragic to some degree. Perceiving reality necessarily exposes us to the limits of existence, and that is always tragic, as the ancient Greeks knew so well. The more we deny reality, the greater the pain when it finally hits us in the face.

This is perhaps the most ominous feature of the world in which we live now. Perceiving reality has never been harder, despite (or maybe because of) all the advances in technology and knowledge. Inundated with fake news and relativism (ironically, the child of bad philosophy), it seems we have lost touch with how things really are. As a culture, we seem profoundly unable to perceive the truths whose signs are all around us, from global warming to increasing economic inequality. The time of reckoning may not be close, but it will inevitably come; and when it does, it will not be pretty. The only thing that may, perhaps, save us, is philosophy.

© Dr Eldar Sarajlic 2023

Eldar Sarajlic is an Associate Professor in Philosophy at the City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College.

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