Dennis E. Bradford sent me three comments via e-mail on my recent Butchvarov post. I omit the first and the third which are more technical in nature, and which I may address in later posts. Bradford writes,
Second, and this separates me from Butch, Larry [Blackman], and you, I reject your assumption concerning the narrowness of philosophy. You mention a conceptual impasse that is “insoluble on the plane of the discursive intellect, which of course is where philosophy must operate.” I object to the “of course.” To be a philosopher is to be a lover of wisdom and who says that our only access to wisdom is via the discursive intellect? In fact, I deny that. As far as I can tell, the Buddha was the greatest philosopher and the wisest human who ever lived, and his view was that limiting our examination only to the domain of the discursive intellect prevents one from becoming wise.
Actually, I don't disagree with this comment. It is a matter of terminology, of how we should use the word 'philosophy.' For me there are at least four ways to the Absolute, philosophy, religion, mysticism, and morality. This post provides rough sketches of how I view the first three. I end by suggesting that the pursuit of wisdom involves all three 'postures.' (Compare the physical postures in the three pictures below.)
Philosophy is not fundamentally a set of views but an activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need to know the truth, applies discursive reason to the data of life in an attempt to arrive at the ultimate truth about them. Discursive reason is reason insofar as it articulates itself in concepts, judgments, arguments, and systems of argument. As the etymology of the term suggests (L. currere, to run), discursive reason is roundabout rather than direct -- as intuitive reason would be if there is such a thing. Discursive reason gets at its object indirectly via concepts, judgments, and arguments. This feature of discursive reason makes for objectivity and communicability; but it exacts a price, and the price must be paid in the coin of loss of concreteness. Thus the oft-heard complaint about the abstractness of philosophy is not entirely without merit.
Note that I define philosophy in terms of the activity of discursive reason: any route to the truth that does not make use of this ‘faculty’ is simply not philosophy. You may take this as a stipulation if you like, but it is of course more than this, grounded as it is in historical facts. if you want to know what philosophy is, read Plato. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says somewhere, "Philosophy is Plato, and Plato philosophy." (I quote from memory!) And there is this from Keith's blog.
The nearest thing to a safe definition of the word "philosophy", if we wish to include all that has been and will be correctly so called, is that it means the activity of Plato in his dialogues and every activity that has arisen or will arise out of that.
(Richard Robinson, "Is Psychical Research Relevant to Philosophy?" The Aristotelian Society, supplementary volume 24 : 189-206, at 192.)
This is in line with my masthead motto which alludes to the famous observation of Alfred North Whitehead:
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them. [. . .] Thus in one sense by stating my belief that the train of thought in these lectures is Platonic, I am doing no more than expressing the hope that it falls within the European tradition. (Process and Reality, Corrected Edition, The Free Press, 1978, p. 39)
Discursivity, then, is essential to philosophy as a matter of definition, a definition that is not merely stipulative but grounded in a possibility of our nature that was best realized in Plato and what he gave rise to.
Thus Jesus of Nazareth was not a philosopher, pace George Bush. If you insist that he was, then I will challenge you to show me the arguments whereby he established such dicta as "I and the Father are one," etc. I will demand the premises whence he arrived at this ‘conclusion.’ Argument and counterargument before the tribunal of reason are the sine qua non of philosophy, its veritable lifeblood. The truth is that Jesus gave no arguments, made no conjectures, refuted no competing theories. There is no dialectic in the Gospels such as we find in the Platonic dialogues. This is not an objection to Jesus’ life and message, but simply an underscoring of the fact that he was not a philosopher. (But I have a nagging sense that Dallas Willard says something to the contrary somewhere.) Believing himself to be one with the Father, Jesus of course believed himself to be one with the ultimate truth. Clearly, no such person is a mere philo-sopher, etymologically, a lover of wisdom; he is rather (one who makes a claim to being) a possessor of it. The love of the philosopher, as Plato’s Symposium made clear, is erothetic love, a love predicated on lack; it is not agapic love, love predicated on plenitude. The philosopher is an indigent fellow, grubbing his way forward bit by bit as best he can, by applying discursive reason to the data of experience. God is no philosopher, thank God!
Agreeing with Bradford that a philosopher is a lover of wisdom, I yet insist that he is a lover and pursuer of wisdom by dialectical means, assuming we are going to use 'philosopher' strictly. This use of terms does not rule out other routes to wisdom, routes that may prove more efficacious.
Indeed, since philosophy examines everything, including itself (its goals, its methods, its claim to cognitivity), philosophy must also examine whether it is perhaps an inferior route to truth or no route to truth at all!
Religion (from L. religere, to bind) is not fundamentally a collection of rites, rituals, and dogmas, but an activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need to live in the truth, as opposed to know it objectively in propositional guise, seeks to establish a personal bond with the Absolute. Whereas philosophy operates with concepts, judgments, arguments and theories, religion proceeds by way of faith, trust, devotion, and love. It is bhaktic rather than jnanic, devotional rather than discriminative. The philosophical project, predicated on the autonomy of reason, is one of relentless and thus endless inquiry in which nothing is immune from examination before the reason’s bench. But the engine of inquiry is doubt, which sets philosophy at odds with religion with its appeal to revealed truth. If the occupational hazard of the philospher is a life-inhibiting scepticism, the corresponding hazard for the religionist is a dogmatic certainty that can easily turn murderous. For a relatively recent example, consider the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. (This is why such zealots of the New Atheism as Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling, et al. are not completely mistaken.)
The philosopher objects to the religionist: "You believe things for which you have no proof!" The religionist replies to the philosopher: "You sew without a knot in your thread!" I am not engaging in Zen mondo, but alluding to Kierkegaard’s point that to philosophize without dogma is like sewing without a knot in one’s thread. The philosopher will of course reply that to philosophize with dogma is not to philosophize at all. Here we glimpse one form of the conflict beween philosophy and religion as routes to the Absolute. If the philosopher fails to attain the Absolute because discursive reason dissolves in scepticism, the religionist often attains what can only be called a pseudo-Absolute, an idol.
The reader must of course take these schematic remarks cum grano salis. It would be simple-minded to think that cold impersonal reason (philosophy) stands in simple and stark confrontation to warm personal love (religion). For philosophy is itself a form of love –- erothetic love -- of the Absolute, and without the inspiring fervor of this longing love, the philosopher would not submit himself to the rigorous logical discipline, the mental asceticism, without which serious philosophy is impossible. (I speak of real philosophers, of course, and not mere paid professors of it.) Good philosophy is necessarily technical, often mind-numbingly so. (The reader may verify that the converse of this proposition does not hold.) Only a lover of truth will put up with what Hegel called die Anstrengung des Begriffs, the exertion of the concept. On the other hand, religious sentiments and practices occur in a context of beliefs that are formulated and defended in rational terms, including those beliefs that cannot be known by unaided reason but are vouchsafed to us by revelation. So in pursuit of taxonomy we must not fall into crude compartmentalization. The philosopher has his devotions and the religionist has his reasonings.
Turning now to mysticism, we may define it as the activity whereby a questing individual, driven by a need for direct contact with the Absolute, disgusted with verbiage and abstraction as well as with mere belief and empty rites and rituals, seeks to know the Absolute immediately, which is to say, neither philosophically through the mediation of concepts, judgments and arguments, nor religiously through the mediation of faith, trust, devotion, and adherence to tradition. The mystic does not want to know about the Absolute, that it exists, what its properties are, how it is related to the relative plane, etc.; nor does he want merely to believe or trust in it. He does not want knowledge by description, but knowledge by acquaintance. Nor is he willing, like the religionist, to postpone his enjoyment of it. He wants it, he wants it whole, and he wants it now. He wants to verify its existence for himself here and now in the most direct way possible: by intuiting it. ‘Intuition’ is a terminus technicus: it refers to direct cognitive access to an object or state of affairs. You should think of the the Latin intuitus as used by Descartes, and the German Anschauung as used by Kant. The intuition in question is of course not sensible but intellectual. Thus the mystical ‘faculty’ is that of intellectual intuition. The possibility of intellektuelle Anschauung was of course famously denied by Kant.
The ultimate goal for a human being is wisdom which could be characterized as knowledge of, and participation in, the saving truth. One who attains this goal is a sage. No philosopher is a sage, by definition. For a philosopher, as a lover (seeker) of wisdom, is not a possessor of it. One does not seek what one possesses. The philosopher's love is eros, love predicated on lack. At most, the philosopher is a would-be sage, one for whom philosophy (as characterized above) is a means to the end of becoming a sage. If a philosopher attains the Goal, then he ceases to be a philosopher. If a philosopher gets a Glimpse of the Goal, in that moment he ceases to be a philosopher, but then, after having lost the Glimpse (which is what usually happens) he is back to being as philosopher again.
At this point a difficult question arises. Is philosophy a means to sagehood, or a distraction from it? I grant that the ultimate Goal cannot be located on the discursive plane. What one ultimately wants is not an empty conceptual knowledge but a fulfilled knowledge. Some say that when a philosopher seeks God, he attains only a 'God of the philosophers,' an abstraction. (See my Pascal and Buber on the God of the Philosophers.) The kernel of truth in this is that discursive operations typically do not bring one beyond the plane of discursivity. One thought leads to another, and another, and another . . . and never to the Thinker 'behind' them or the divine Other.
And so one might decide that philosophy is useless -- "not worth an hour's trouble" as Pascal once said -- and that one ought either to follow the path of religion or that of mysticism. That is not my view, for reasons I will need a separate post to explain.
For now I will say only this. Philosophy is not enough. It needs supplementation by the other paths mentioned. Analogy. You go to a restaurant to eat, not to study the menu. But reading the menu is a means to the end of ordering and enjoying the meal. Philosophy is like reading the menu; eating is like attaining the Goal.
But it is also the case that religion and mysticism require the discipline of philosophy. There is a lot to be said on these topics, and it will be the philosopher who will do the saying. The integration of the faculties falls to philosophy, and an integrated life is what we aspire to, is it not? We seek to avoid the onesidedness of the philosopher, but also the onesidedness of the mystic, of the religionist, of the moralist, not to mention the onesidedness of the moneygrubber, the physical fitness fanatic, etc.