Philosophers: Saying What We Like . . .

HomeEssaysPhilosophers: Saying What We Like . . .

There have been, since the floruit of Parmenides, a lot of philosophers, an awful lot of philosophers, actually. The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Philosophy has eight volumes. The range of opinions they offer has been a standard reproach to philosophy by anti-philosophers (there have been a lot of those too.) Philosophers, they point out, cannot agree on the answers. They can’t even agree on the questions, and that on a basic level, as if the uncertainty were not whether one should use milk with the eggs in an omelette or not, but whether an omelette has an orange rind or hooves . . .

So there is a wide range of opinions available to the student of philosophy, and each follows the philosopher whom she or he likes or admires. There are Platonists, there are Aristotelians, and somewhere out there someone is sitting in a t-shirt with the slogan “Malebranche Rules, Okay?” or “Francis Bacon with Everything.”

A problem is an invitation to inquiry, and one of the things we may reasonably ask is what inclines a concrete individual, say, our friend Earl, toward this or that philosophical mentor.

There are a variety of answers.

The most uplifting and edifying answer would be that Earl has found X to be the most intellectually sound of all the philosophers he has encountered. If that were the ordinary operative answer it would be…pleasant. But of course it isn’t the whole story, or even most of the story. Until you have intensively studied a philosopher it is difficult to make a reasoned judgement, and that is a big investment in time and effort. Which are short and expensive respectively.

Very often, the push comes from a mentor whom the tyro admires, or from a vague climate of opinion that says so-and-so is hot-hot-hot. Earl finds all his friends are into Sartre (way back then) or Wittgenstein (the last couple of decades) or Martha Nussbaum (now) and that’s where he goes.

But in dealing with human beings, it is prudence to consider lower possibilities, at least briefly.

We can discount the desire for money, in this case, for there is very little of that going around in studying philosophy (though popular philosophical writing can be profitable – Alain de Botton is doing very nicely, thank you).

Let us, with great diffidence, suggest a factor that sounds cynical, but maybe, who can tell? not so cynical as it looks.

We incline to a particular philosopher because that person tells us that what we would like to be true is, in fact, no fooling, trust me on this, true.

What rational human being would not find this attractive? We may have doubts, we would be silly if we didn’t, but it is an appealing thing to hear.

Let’s perscind from considering the merits of this or that philosopher, and ask what the happy news is that he brings.

Plato: this crummy world, where everything is broken and larded with pain, is real, yes, but only to a degree, and Real Reality is way, way better, and, with a little effort, it is accessible, right here and now. You, you Earl, can let the Eternals shine through your wretched situation like strong light through a dirty window.

Aristotle: the world you love, with its variety of rocks, animals, and men, is in fact the world that is. It is no mask. It is what is real. And it is rational and it is intelligible. It has imperfections, but even the imperfections make sense. And when you think about stars and kings, you become, to a limited but true degree, a star, or a king.

Aquinas: the source of reason and the source of love are the same source. And that Source knows you, yes it does, and it loves you and it wants you, very, very much, to be rational and loving and happy. Which you can be.

Voegelin: when you talk about politics, from the county office to the oval office, you are talking poetically. Politics is a symbolic response to a universal mystery. There is more going on in politics than a general system of torture. Orwell was right on a lot of points. But not on this.

Lonergan: You are not stupid, you have merely been taught to think poorly. Also, metaphysics is not BS, as you were told over and over by your clever friends.   It is necessary, edifying, personal, and there is a right and a wrong way of doing it. And if you do it the right way, it has some astounding consequences.

Strauss: (here, dear reader, we climb out on a limb a long way, for we have only been told about Strauss, we haven’t read a lot of him. Let those expert in Strauss be kind). Within the words of the philosophers is a secret. You can reach it and understand it. Then you will know it and hardly anyone else will and you may get a job in the State Department.

Whosit: this will be left as a exercise for students . . .

All righty. To analyze philosophy as a sort of wish fulfillment appears, as we said early, pretty damn cynical. Cynicism, in its modern sense, not the Diogenes in a tub sense, seems something worth avoiding. Skepticism, in the sense of subjecting evidence to careful consideration, is a scientific method. Cynicism is an attitude. Skepticism says that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of justice going around. Cynicism says that the idea of justice is hooey, per se. Cynics have made up their minds already.

A person likes to hear that what he wants to hear is the way it is. Who wouldn’t? But that doesn’t preclude skepticism. And it is worthwhile cutting into the issue a little deeper and asking why Earl wants certain things to be true. It seems to us that we now get down to a particular vision of good that open up to each individual in a serious way. It is a Dante-sees-Beatrice sort of thing and it is not to be taken lightly.

That said, we open the following question to our readers: what is the good people find in Heidegger?

This is a serious question. The writer of these words knows very little about Weird Marty. His ideas seem very difficult and expressed in obscurities. Also, of course, in German. But then, according to Dr. H., we are told, German is the only language in which you can write philosophy. Take that Aquinas. Another problem: the natural approach of ordinary humans is to take the philosopher, the living breathing person, as the embodiment of his philosophy. And frankly, looked at as a person, Heidegger is unappetizing. Its not just the old and dishonorable practice of banging grad students, it’s the politics and the anti-Semiticism.

Yet Heidegger rolls ahead. We are told he is wildly popular in Japan.

Are we missing something or are the Japanese under an “Edgar Allen Poe (and Jerry Lewis) is the Greatest” collective illusion?

When something like this goes on, it is never safe to explain away by saying that so-and-so’s supporters are racists, sexists, petty-bourgeois, social trash. They are getting something they need, and we had better try to understand it.

Can some of the learned explain?

Max Arnott

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Max Arnott is an independent scholar living in Toronto and has been a reader of Voegelin for many years.