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Be Your Own Person – Be a Philosopher

Continuing our occasional series of personal interpretations of philosophy, C.H. Goodwin extols the philosophical life.

The immediate reaction of some sharp, informed readers with a particular philosophical background to the heading of this article will be a denial of any necessary, logical relationship between becoming an autonomous person and being a philosopher. They will say philosophy is concerned with the meaning of meaning, and not with providing a framework of beliefs and values by which to live. As one professional philosopher has put it, “Philosophy… is above all concerned with the clarification of the concepts and propositions through which our experience and activities are intelligible…philosophy is not a speculative super-science that tries to answer questions about some ultimate reality; it is not the pursuit of moral knowledge; it is not the integrator of all human understanding into a unified view of man, God and the universe…”;

The heading of this article, however, is based upon the popular understanding of the word ‘philosophy’ as indicating a person’s basic attitudes towards life in general. W.F. Deedes can speak of “the private philosophy that we all have tucked away inside us somewhere”; to which we can turn for inner strength in times of great stress. It can also be used to denote an approach towards a particular activity. Thus the wise, old deputy-head of the first primary school in which I taught advised me, “The best thing you can do in this profession is to make up your own philosophy and stick to it.”; The wise teacher, therefore, is his own person with his own philosophy of education! He has his own distinctive way of educating children based on what he thinks is of value.

The more I pondered the words of the deputy-head the more I realized they implied three important things about the nature of philosophy, They implied philosophy was: a highly personal, distinctive activity; a testimony to the kind of person we are since it expresses our basic values and beliefs; a consciously articulated and coherent system of beliefs and values informing and guiding our conduct as individuals.

The academic philosophers I was conversant with at the time claimed to stand within the historic tradition of the great philosophers of the past which they seemed to date back to Socrates. One of them said, “What distinguishes the philosopher is the type of second-order questions which he asks. These are basically the same questions asked by Socrates at the beginning – the questions ‘What do you mean?’ and ‘How do you know?’”; I was familiar with Plato’s accounts of Socrates philosophical activity in his dialogues The Republic and The Phaedrus, and extended my knowledge to include some of Plato’s other works. To my relief I discovered that the three characteristics of philosophy I had identified in the deputy-head’s advice were also present in Socrates.

Philosophy was a highly distinctive activity for Socrates. He became dissatisfied with the science of his day because it failed to throw light on what he chiefly wanted to know by its insistence on explaining everything mechanistically. So, says one scholar, Socrates, “turned his back on all such speculations and resolved to work out a new method for himself.”

Socrates philosophy revealed what kind of person he was; Socrates was a deeply religious man. He devised his own method of philosophical enquiry in response to the divine oracle of Delphi which declared him to be the wisest man in Greece. Philosophy became for Socrates the means of discovering his own ignorance. As he said in his defence to the citizens of Athens, “the truth probably is, citizens, that it is God who is really wise, and that he means in this oracle to say that human wisdom is worth little or nothing.”

Philosophy informed and guided the conduct of Socrates. He also said in his defence to the citizens of Athens, “the greatest good to man is to discourse daily about virtue and those other matters about which you have heard me speak and examine both myself and others, and that a life without examination is not worth living.”

The same three characteristics were present in the philosophy of the modern philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Like Socrates before him Wittgenstein developed a philosophical method to answer those questions which he considered to be of importance to himself. In his first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he tried to show that the differences between linguistic forms were superficial surface variations concealing a uniform logical structure which can be described by philosophical analysis. His second book, Philosophical Investigations, was designed to demonstrate that language did not after all possess this common essence. The result was “a new kind of philosophical work which contains no sweeping generalization and remarkably little categorical assertion.”

For Wittgenstein, as for Socrates, philosophy informed and guided life. Where Socrates had sought to deliver people from the bewitchment of their intellect by their natural senses, Wittgenstein sought to deliver the intellect from bewitchment by assumptions about the nature of language. As one interpreter of Wittgenstein expresses it, “Philosophical theories are a product of the imagination, and they offer us simple but seemingly profound pictures, which blind us to the actual complexities of language. The new philosophy is an organized resistance to this enchantment…”

Like Socrates, Wittgenstein appears to have had some kind of conversion experience. He recounted a significant dream which he interpreted as a call to some kind of priestly life. Something caused Wittgenstein to reject a metaphysical view of life. He, himself, said it was a gradual change of outlook forced upon him by the criticisms made of his work by a certain Frank Ramsey, and a Mr. P. Saffra who was a lecturer at Cambridge.

Is it legitimate to claim that one can be one’s own person, and that the most rewarding way of attaining independent selfhood is through the practice of philosophy? Is it possible to be a philosopher at all without proper training in the subject? R.G. Collingwood said, “Anyone who thinks, and is determined to let nothing stop him from thinking is philosopher…”; other professional philosophers disagree. It is not enough to be a thoughtful person. All too often, when people first begin to reflect upon their experience, their thoughts are confused, contradictory and inconsistent. This is because they tend to pursue their reflections without much method and without a clear understanding of what constitutes a valid chain of reasoning. Thus Antony Flew could say, “a training in philosophy must involve a training both in arguing soundly and in assessing the soundness of arguments.”; On the plus side, the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci notes: “It is necessary to destroy the widely held prejudice that philosophy is extremely difficult because it is an intellectual activity proper to a certain category of scientific specialists or professional and systematic philosophers.”

One can play football without having to be a professional footballer. One can think without having a knowledge of logic. It may be uninformed, undisciplined, and emotionally clouded by one’s prejudices but even professional philosophers with all their sophisticated methods of analysis and reasoning despair of reaching final, incontrovertible conclusions. A. J. Ayer once wrote, “In philosophy one never quite knows where one is, one never quite knows when one has got a problem solved – whether one has got the problem properly posedThis I think makes one despair at times, but then one goes on, and perhaps one gets something one thinks may be right, and then one feels better again.”

One requires certain moral characteristics to become a philosopher which are more important than philosophical techniques. The most important is the courage to accept responsibility for taking one’s life into one’s own hands. Sam Morgan, a Supreme High Court judge in the novel, The Candidate, reflects “that one was on one’s own mettle. One’s own man. Responsible to one’s own conscience. Answerable to no-one else. Alone with one’s soul, one’s morality, one’s own sense of justice.”; This involves the need to form and reform one’s self-consciousness in response to new knowledge and new experiences. The philosopher has the courage to accept the anxiety involved in forsaking where necessary ideas which are familiar landmarks of his or her identity.

One also needs to be selective. Not every new feature one encounters in the proces’s of learning from life has to be absorbed into ones consciousness. One has to decide which of these features are significant, and why, and what degree of importance should be assigned to them, and how much time should be spent in thinking about them. One needs to be honest with oneself in facing up to unpleasant discoveries otherwise one will distort one’s reflections to suit one’s wishes.

One also needs to be co’nsiderate of the welfare of others. Being ones own person can be harmful to other people. In a television play a married man confesses his infatuation with another woman to his friend. He says he loves the other woman so much he would leave his wife for her. He defends his infatuation by saying, “I am what I am.”His friend retorts, “And being what you are hurts other people.”Practising philosophy as one’s own person involves “responsible freedom shared in community.” There is the need, therefore, “to be benevolent and to love other people.”At the very least this involves being alert to the interests of other people, sensitive to their feelings, and sufficiently aware of the facts of any situation to calculate the consequences of our actions.

So, be your own person – be a philosopher!

© C.H. Goodwin 1998

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