welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Tallis in Wonderland

The Unthinkability of Philosophical Thoughts

Raymond Tallis thinks the deeply unthinkable, as hard as he can.

Perhaps the most dramatic and possibly even the most influential thought in philosophy is Parmenides’ assertion that the universe is an unchanging, undifferentiated unity. He arrived at this conclusion by an argument so simple that if you blink, you miss it. What-is-not, he says, is not. Since what-is-not does not exist, it cannot act either as a womb of that which is coming to be, or a tomb for that which has ceased to be. Things cannot therefore come into being, nor pass away, for they cannot arise out of or pass into what-is-not. Nor can there be space between objects (since empty space is what-is-not), and so the differentiation of Being into beings in the plural is impossible.

As is often the case in philosophy, Parmenides’ extraordinary claims have profound roots. Of more interest to us here is the fact that his oeuvre– some 150 lines! – has had a huge influence. He was the first philosopher to set out the arguments in support of his world picture, allowing his auditors to make up their own minds as to its validity. His was the earliest formulation of the laws of thought, in particular the law of contradiction. He inaugurated the philosophical tradition (an inspiration to mathematicians) of accepting the conclusions of an argument if it is sound, however contrary to experience, and of giving priority to reason over sense experience. He invented metaphysics (‘the philosophy of Being qua Being’). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he gave the clearest early expression to the intuition, still at the heart of science and even philosophy, that reality, contrary to its fluctuating appearance, is essentially stable and unchanging.

His influence was amplified by Plato, who worked within Parmenides’ fundamental assumptions. If, as Whitehead said, the history of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, it is not entirely unjust to describe Plato as Parmenides’ footnote (as I have done in The Enduring Significance of Parmenides, Continuum, 2008). It is remarkable therefore that (as Anaxagoras was the first to point out), Parmenides’ central thought – that nothing changes, or comes into or out of being – is strictly unthinkable. If it were true, you couldn’t think it. For the thought that nothing changes must be thought, and so come into and pass out of being. We could say that the token thought that nothing changes is counter to what is thought in it.

Parmenides’ claim that nothing changes is a particularly striking and obvious instance of an unthinkable thought. It is an example of what has been called ‘pragmatic self-refutation’; the characteristic of an assertion which, by the very fact of being asserted, demonstrates its own untruth. A more trivial example would be someone saying “I can’t say ‘breakfast’.” But thinking about Parmenides over the last couple of years has reminded me of something that has preoccupied me since I first began philosophising: the difficulty of truly thinking the most profound philosophical thoughts. I don’t know how it is with you, but the commonest thought I have when I am philosophising is “I am not really thinking this thought.” My mind feels numb to itself. Even where their content does not forbid their being thought, philosophical thoughts seem resistant to being thought with the requisite completeness.

It is easy to see why this is the case. There is, first of all, the huge scope of many philosophical thoughts: they aim at, or pretend to, the widest possible generality. Now we are used to ‘factual’ thoughts of mind-boggling scope. For example: “The suffering experienced as a result of WWII was immense.” Indeed, much of the time, when we are dealing with objects of knowledge by description as opposed to those of direct acquaintance (to use Bertrand Russell’s distinction) – abstract nouns rather than sensed objects – we feel that our verbal reach exceeds our mental grasp. Things, however, are different with philosophical discourse, partly because its scope is boundless. This cannot be the whole story – after all, science talks about ‘matter’, ‘energy’, ‘the universe’, and so on. Philosophy, however, is special in a crucial respect.

As Gabriel Marcel pointed out, the subject matter of philosophy actually encroaches on the philosopher. If the goal of philosophy, whether it is the philosophy of mind, or of the self, or of Being, or substance, is to arrive at a coherent account of the totality of what is there, this will include the philosopher. Unlike science (which is resolutely third-person, or no-person), philosophy, though it attempts to be objective, rational and impersonal, cannot leave out consciousness or the first-person. Which is why when we first philosophise, we are often assailed by vertigo, and by the sensation that we’re going to spin into a maelstrom of self-consciousness.

The Unthinkability of Philosophy

For much of the time, of course, philosophers, like scientists, deal with problems ‘out there’. Philosophy is specialised and breaks down topics into problems which are addressed piecemeal. But if we are serious we want ultimately to bring everything together, perhaps in a small cluster of thoughts that can be held in mind and understood. Even though we seem never to arrive at this goal, such a distillation remains a ‘regulative idea’ (to use Kant’s phrase), and is ultimately what distinguishes philosophy from mere puzzle-solving.

We often forget this because philosophy provides us with so many intermediate, provisional satisfactions: following arguments, winning debates, getting to know what X thought and Y said, and seeing how X influenced Y. It is also possible to entertain philosophical ideas in a way that makes us feel that we are really having them, even when we fall a long way short of truly possessing, or being possessed, by those thoughts. Anyone who is truly seized by the impulse to philosophise knows that it is more than just another mode of cognitive productivity (pace professional philosophers who have to produce papers). Yes, we can argue, or follow arguments, towards philosophical ideas, and argue, or follow arguments, away from them, and cite them and knowingly allude to them; but in doing so we remain only a conduit for them. This is fine in the case of science, where ideas are subordinated to some other purpose. The ideas are not being thought for their own sake. This is not the case in truly philosophical thinking.

I probably need to make a little clearer what I think truly having a philosophical thought would be like. Imagine a stream of thought arriving at a destination, coming to a halt and widening into a lagoon that not only has the shape of the idea the philosopher has tried to convey, but also of the thinker, who is given over to the idea without remainder. This full immersion is, of course, impossible; not least because ideas are always mediated through token thoughts that have to be thought again and again, but also because some of the thinker has to remain outside the thought in order for him or her to have it.

The demand that we should eventually stand still, like a kestrel at stoop, on a definitive, all-encompassing thought, seems even more absurd when we remind ourselves what it is like ‘in there’ where we humans have our thoughts. Anyone who has read James Joyce’s Ulysses will have been reminded how our mental life consists of a torrent of fragments that seems closer to delirium than to contemplation. This is true even when we are philosophising. We overlook this because we think of philosophical thoughts as neat sentences, sitting nice and still on the page, not tossed about all over the place, fading and dissolving, brightening and crystallising, as they are in our living, endlessly distracted, multiply engaged, constantly interrupted consciousnesses. No wonder it is easier to reach conclusions than to dwell in them. And yet without this latter aim, philosophising easily degenerates into a shopping expedition in a cognitive mall.

What philosophy, in the end, demands of us, is concentration – but concentration of a different kind from that which enables us to formulate, or follow, a complex argument. To think ‘Being is’, or even to really think about the nature of mind (including the mind that’s currently thinking), or to think about thought (which includes the thoughts being thought – Marcel’s point again), requires the kind of discipline we associate with mystics. And this is something that pretty well everything in our life militates against, as we surf our attractions and distractions. According to Heidegger, the “most thought-provoking feature of our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.” (What Is Thinking?) This paradoxical claim certainly seems true when our cogitations are measured against Heidegger’s notion of what it is truly to think philosophically: “to confine yourself to a single thought that one day stands still like a star in the world’s sky.”

While Parmenides’ foundational thought was manifestly unthinkable if true, it was also the shape of things to come. As philosophers (or, at least, as metaphysicians) we endeavour to ascend from the particular engagements of the mind to an overview of Everything. But this overview breaks down to occurrent thoughts – to precisely those particular moments of engagement we are trying to rise above. Philosophy, which aims to be cognitively anti-parochial, boils down to local instances. So the unthinkability of Parmenidean thoughts prefigured the ultimate unthinkability of all thoughts when we attempt to think them to the standard required in true philosophy. The psychological experience falls short of the stasis that is true arrival in thought.

Philosophy sooner or later invites us to have thoughts we can only aspire to think with the sustained intensity they seem to demand. Acknowledging that the cognitive climax will always elude us, so that the implicit goal of philosophy is unachievable, does not necessarily preclude joy in this the most profound of intellectual activities. As we think towards the unthinkable, with thoughts that we hope may nonetheless be fruitful, we are like the bikers in Thom Gunn’s poem who “only seem to get there by never keeping still.” Or Beckett’s Molloy, whose last thoughts were “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2007

Raymond Tallis is a physician, philosopher, poet and novelist. His book The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Round Your Head will be published by Atlantic in 2008.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X