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The Shock of Philosophy: On Josef Pieper

The Shock Of Philosophy: On Josef Pieper

From images of moral depravity on television and online to the perpetually bad-news news cycle to the blunders, improprieties, and worse of celebrities and politicians, the vile and offensive seem to be so commonplace that one might reasonable wonder if anything can be shocking anymore.  We are evidently still capable of outrage, expressed with uncompromising vitriol on social media platforms, but we seem to not be terribly surprised when something outrageous happens.  “Of course,” we seem to say, “he would do that,” from which observation the directive, “let’s ruin him,” is in no way unusual.  Is there anything left that can shock us or are we simply too experienced, too savvy, perhaps even too culturally mature, for that?

I’m not so sure that we are incapable of being shocked, and I’m quite certain there’s little about our culture that displays signs of great maturity or refined experienced, but I will, nonetheless, concede that we are much more accustomed to and much less disturbed by ugliness, injustice, vice, and evil than our predecessors were (and, truth be told, much less than we should be) and that this familiarity can cause a calm, almost accepting, resignation in the face of it all.  It’s not easy to avoid cynicism when hearing about yet another murder, sexual abuse scandal, corporate deceit, or political abuse of public trust.

Despite this sad fact, it seems to me that there are human experiences that remain shocking in their genuine form.  Take love, for instance.  Love, properly and truly speaking, shocks the lover, disrupts him, shakes him out of whatever self-indulgent egoism dominated his life hitherto, and turns him, finally and rightly, away from himself and towards someone else to whom he would give more than he would to himself – indeed, to whom he would give just about everything, even himself.  At once ironic and beautiful, this turning away from himself is also an unexpected and joyful return.  The lover finds himself, his true self as it were, in the shocking self-abnegation of love; he finds his self-interest by giving it up.  Still more shocking is the humbling realization that the beloved loves him too, and would give him as much or more than he is prepared to give the other.  Almost unbearably shocking is the final realization: he has done nothing to deserve the beloved’s love; he receives it gratuitously.

If anyone doesn’t experience love as shocking, it’s not because they are desensitized, but because they haven’t experienced genuine love.  Sadly, true love may be increasingly rare, being substituted, at least in its romantic iteration, by the sexualized pursuit of immediate pleasure we commonly call lust.  Who needs self-abandonment when they can have self-gratification, love when they can have sex, human flourishing when they can have apparent contentment?  Similarly, if it is true that we are not often shocked anymore, it is not because we have been shocked too often, but because we are not being shocked often or deeply enough.  We are not losing our capacity to be shocked from a surplus of human experience, but from a tragic deficit.

Another such experience, the one on which I intend to focus in what follows, is the experience of philosophizing.  Most college students – past, present, and, I hope, future – have some experience with philosophy: they are assigned some books or essays called philosophical, whether they read them or not; they listen, more or less, to lectures on topics a professor indicates are philosophical; they engage, well or poorly, in class debate about those same philosophical topics; and they write papers of a supposedly philosophical nature, arguing for this or that theory of knowledge, self, ethics, politics, art, or reality, and showing some other such theory to be invalid, possibly even childish or, worse, stupid.  Some of these students will go further, earning degrees, even advanced degrees, specializing in philosophy, reading even more books, listening to more lectures, debating more often and more vociferously, and writing more, lengthier, and increasingly disputative papers.  But have most college students, specialists included, been shocked by any of this?  If they haven’t, then they may not have any genuine experience of philosophy whatsoever.

I can well imagine the objection already.  Isn’t philosophy simply a rational method of analysis by which we can justify our positions relative to perennial questions about the meaning of life, structure of reality, knowledge, and value?  Isn’t philosophical study simply the cultivation of the rationality and logic required for a well-functioning democratic society?  What has shock to do with any of that?  To take some steps towards making the case that philosophy is indeed shocking when it is rightly practiced, let me turn to the great but underappreciated twentieth century German philosopher, Josef Pieper, specifically to his short book, based on a series of lectures delivered in 1947, the Philosophical Act.[1]

In this book, Pieper differentiates philosophy from other disciplines of study by noting the unique role of self-questioning in philosophy, not just the self-questioning of the philosopher, as someone who, in good Socratic fashion, wants to know himself, but the self-interrogation of philosophy itself: philosophy is unique in asking itself what it is.  A physicist, for instance, asks questions about the nature and regularity of material reality.  What the physicist does not do is ask about the nature of physics itself – at least not in the process of doing physics.  The physicist may consider the nature of physics as a prelude or epilogue to scientific practice, but not as science.  Physics does not discover its nature; the nature of physics guides its practice.

In contrast, philosophy always asks about itself in virtue of its own practice.  “What is philosophy?” is a decidedly philosophical question, evidenced in no small part by the embarrassment students, and often their professors, feel when called by friends and family who are unfamiliar with philosophy to tell them about this thing they are spending all their time with.  It is impossible to give the shorthand, dictionary definition one wants in this situation because the definition of philosophy, if we may even call it that, is only meaningful in the process of doing philosophy, which is also to say, the shorthand, dictionary definition is always misleading, even if not altogether wrong.  As Pieper puts it, “the question occurs in the very midst of the undertaking” (77).  Philosophy itself is always at stake in its practice.  As soon as I ask about it in a sincere way, I’m doing it, and whenever I do it, I’m asking about it, whether that question is stated explicitly or not.

That philosophy asks about itself, as an ostensibly methodological feature, points to a deeper distinction between philosophy and other studies, including the sciences.  Practitioners of the latter expect to find final answers to their questions.  Their questions are all, in principle, answerable, and each of those answers can be decisive.  The scientist or scholar may not come to the final answer that will put an end to that specific question, but that answer is the intended goal.  In contrast, philosophy’s answers are never final.  They never put an end to the questioning.  It is not that philosophy indulges in incessant asking without answering.  Elsewhere, Pieper responds to the objection that philosophy never ends up answering any of its questions with an emphatic, “of course it does!  Otherwise it would not be true questioning at all”!  Clarifying, he adds, “if such an answer is understood as imparting knowledge that satisfies and eliminates the question, and therefore takes away the very reason to ask the question, then we certainly have to say that philosophy’s question does not find an answer.”[2]  This is to say that philosophy does answer questions, but that these answers are not “neatly rounded truths” (77), propositions that can be stated once and for all, accumulated, and compiled.  A philosophical answer, no matter how true it may be, never puts the question to rest.

Philosophical questioning is incessant, at least in part, because philosophy is lived, which is to say that a philosophical conclusion is only meaningful to the extent to which the philosopher arrives at it by philosophizing.  The philosopher is as much at stake in philosophizing as philosophy itself.  Gabriel Marcel makes a distinction that may be helpful between observation and testimony.[3]  Observation is neutral; it aspires to pure and unbiased objectivity.  Anyone can observe under the right conditions and the results of observation don’t depend on the person observing; the observer is not at stake in observation.  Testimony, in contrast, requires an existential commitment.  To testify is to bear witness to something, some event, some fact, some truth.  Testimony may be objective insofar as what is reported accurately represents the things to which the person bears witness, but it is also personal insofar as the authority of the report depends entirely on the particularity of the perspective of the witness.  The observer says, “it can be observed that.”  The witness says, “I have seen and heard that.”  One observes; I testify.  Science observes; philosophy bears witness.

The things about which philosophy asks, including itself, are not objects clearly delimited in the finite world, ready to be grasped, measured, and handed over to the next person in line.  If two philosophers arrive at the same truth, it is not because one borrowed the conclusion from the other, as much as one might have been inspired by the other, but because both philosophized from the question to the true result, though not necessarily in the self-same way.  In contrast, science aspires to precisely what philosophy cannot: delimiting the finite world, measuring it, and listing verifiable propositions about it.  In so doing, scientists can build a body of knowledge, each generation inheriting the last’s discoveries, correcting previous errors, and adding their own novel discoveries.  In theory, any conventional study can exhaust its domain; philosophy cannot because it starts anew every time.

If conventional study accumulates true propositions about some part of the finite and empirical world, it stays in that world; it is at home there.  If philosophy does not accumulate such propositions, then it isn’t altogether at home in the finite and empirical world.  Put differently, to practice philosophy is to suspend or sidestep that world, however temporarily.  To philosophize is to step into a world where good answers are true but not “well rounded”.  To use Pieper’s language, philosophy steps outside of the workaday world.

What is the workaday world?  It is:

“[The] world of work, the utilitarian world, the world of the useful, subject to ends, open to achievement and subdivided according to functions; it is the world of demand and supply, of hunger and satiety.  It is dominated by a single end: the satisfaction of the “common need”; it is the world of work in so far as work is synonymous with doing things for useful ends (so that effort and activity are characteristic of the workaday world)” (78). 

Whether in its social or natural dimensions, the workaday world is the world we try to know when we practice any sort of conventional study, which is to say a study that is not philosophical.  If successful, we learn neatly rounded truths about the workaday world, truths that can help us do something in that world, to achieve some useful end: knowledge of physical nature will help me to build a bridge; knowledge of economics, to turn a profit; knowledge of law, to convict a felon.

Neither Pieper nor I have a quarrel with the workaday world.  We are, unquestionably, in that world, even when we philosophize.  Indeed, “not a word need be wasted on that subject; that world is of course essentially part of man’s world, being the very ground of his physical existence – without which, obviously, no one could philosophize” (80).  And if we have no quarrel with the workaday world, we have no quarrel with those who know it, with those who have methodically accumulated well rounded truths about it in its various aspects, so long as they keep their claims to knowledge within the appropriate workaday limits.

However, Pieper worries that the workaday world is increasingly experienced as the only world, a world of “total work”.  Pieper writes: “More and more, at the present time, “common good” and “common need” are identified; and (what comes to the same thing) the world of work is becoming our entire world; it threatens to engulf us completely, and the demands of the world of work become greater and greater, till at last they make a “total” claim upon the whole human nature” (78).

It is hard to dispute Pieper’s observation.  Economic concerns invariably take precedence over moral issues in political debate.  Universities are increasingly devoted to the ideal of training above traditional education.  Art, or what passes as it, is commodified and its value measured by profits.  Even everyday social interactions betray utilitarian assumptions.  What, for instance, is the first question typically asked when meeting someone for the first time?  “What do you do?”, which is to say, “what is your work?” or “what do you do for a living?”  For anyone who asks and answers this question as a matter of course, as most of us do, the famous dichotomy between working to live and living to work is clearly false; this common convention shows that in a world of total work it must be both.  I work for a living, which is to say my work is the condition by which I can support my life, but it is also the living itself – and no some small and inconsequential part of it either.

Consider the comparable question, “what do you do for fun?”  The question asks me what I do that is fun to me, not what I do to make fun possible.  Likewise, what I do for a living is the living, not merely or mainly the conditions by which I can live.  We can contrast this with Aristotle’s profound idea that sensible humans work to be free.[4]  We burden ourselves with utilitarian tasks to take care of the necessities of material existence, not because there is anything intrinsically good or fulfilling about those tasks; we work only so much as to satisfy those necessities, striving to ensure that some genuinely free time, called leisure, will be left over during which we can cultivate ourselves as proper and virtuous human beings.  Free humans work to have leisure; slaves work without leisure.  For Aristotle, to ask what someone does for a living would be to ask a slavish question.  Those who live to work are enslaved by their material and economic needs, even if they happen to also enjoy political and legal “liberties.”  Only in a world constrained by the ideal of work can a social practice by which total strangers ask each other what they do to make money before asking anything else be possible.

Recalling that the workaday world is not only the world of paid labor, but names the entire finite material world within which we move and act, we should also recognize that the prevalent materialism, both metaphysical and economic, of the contemporary world displays the dominance of the workaday world just as clearly as does our inclination to privilege employment.  If I am but matter in motion, a soulless body or mindless brain reactive to pleasure and pain and determined to pursue more of the former than the latter, I am decidedly locked in by the workaday world; materialists are, to use one of Pieper’s great metaphors, enclosed under the dome of the workaday world.  A dome keeps us in, but it does so by keeping us away from what’s outside.  That’s well and good, as domes keep us safe and secure, but they also restrict us, keeping us away from something real.  What’s worse, if I mistake the dome for the outermost limit of the real, then I am precluded from ever experiencing whatever is on the other side.  I’m very glad for my roof, especially when it rains (and especially now that it has been repaired!), but I’d be incapable of the fullness of human experience if I believed there was nothing beyond my ceiling.  Not only would my world be closed, it would be inhumanly small and, thus, inadequate to human flourishing.  My home is beautiful, but the sun and stars are so much more so.  Living under a dome is fine; not knowing the dome is only a dome is not.

If philosophy steps out of the workaday world, then philosophy shocks us out of this enclosed, finite, and material home; it “pierces the dome” of the workaday world (81).  If, in addition, that world appears to us today as the only one there is, if we only ever conceive of human life as finite, temporal, material, and utilitarian, then philosophy is more shocking now than it would be under less reductionist conditions.  In other words, the encounter with philosophy, as with love (Pieper also considers poetry, art, death, and religion), appears as a disruption, not something that takes us away from or out of ourselves, but that takes us away from what we had hitherto believed was ourselves to something else, something higher than the everyday, something that is even more truly ourselves.

Now, to say that philosophy aims us away from the workaday world, away from the immediacy of finite and material life – the dome – is not to suggest that our true world is a world beyond, as if we are truly something other than matter and thus only at one with ourselves when we quit the everyday world once and for all.  Pieper is no gnostic.  Instead, for Pieper, humans are both matter and spirit, both in the workaday world and out of it.  Again, there can be no quarrel with the workaday world; it is our home, but not the whole of it.  Anyone who rejects the immaterial and spiritual denies the wholeness of the world and of human nature.  For this person, true philosophy is inescapably shocking, if they’re even capable of encountering it.

If this is all so, why aren’t all those poor college students and their professors feeling shocked?  The sad answer must only be because they aren’t actually philosophizing.  Pieper describes real philosophy, not just any activity that claims to be philosophy.  Indeed, there is and always has been phony philosophy, something that ostensibly looks and sounds like philosophy but is not.  Phony philosophy isn’t bad philosophy; it is, in effect, anti-philosophy masquerading as the real thing.  Bad philosophy only fails to pierce the dome of the workaday world.  Fake philosophy reinforces the dome, making it less likely to be pierced at all; it screws “down the dome more firmly than ever” and closes “every window” (83).

None of this is hypothetical.  Pseudo-philosophy has a name, long known to philosophers: sophistry.  What characterizes sophistry?  It is a pseudo-philosophical and presumptively rational activity that treats philosophy “as a profession, as training” (83).  The fake philosopher conceives of philosophy (to be precise, the fake philosopher misconceives philosophy from the start, so he doesn’t conceive philosophy at all; he just uses the word) as instrumental, as serving some worldly purpose.  Pieper uses a splendid example to clarify while also warning us against treating philosophy as a tool:

“The government of a country may quite well say: ‘In order to carry out our five-year plan, we need physicists trained in these particular branches of their science, men who will help to put us ahead of other countries’; or: ‘We need medical research students to discover a more efficient cure for the flu.’  Something of this kind may be said or done without violating the essential nature of the sciences in question.  But: ‘At the moment we need philosophers to . . . ‘ – well, what?  There is of course only one conclusion – ‘to elaborate, defend, and demonstrate the following ideology’ – it is only possible to talk or write in such terms if philosophy is being strangled to death at the very same moment” (89).

Insofar as it pierces the dome of the workaday word, genuine philosophy, if it aims at anything at all, aims away from the worldly, towards all of reality.  This is shocking, especially so in a world dominated by worldly pursuits.  In that world, pseudo-philosophy is at home; indeed, it does quite well.  Refinement of logic and language are eminently useful, and this is precisely why they can be brought into the service of dominant ideologies, screwing down the dome.  However, as soon as philosophy serves some immediate goal, it has been undone.  Those who do so are sophists, believing themselves to be wise when they are not.

If philosophy doesn’t shock, it is because it is not actually philosophy; it is sophistry.  Not only is there nothing that precludes this corruption of philosophy from taking place in colleges, and specifically in classrooms where everyone believes they are practicing philosophy, the modern college or university appears to be an ideal home for it.  To renew philosophy, we must disavow sophistry by rejecting the enslavement of human being and human thinking to utility.  Anyone who rejects such enslavement, I’m quite sure, will find philosophy to be truly shocking.



[1] Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, including the Philosophical Act, translated by Alexander Dru (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009).  This text is cited parenthetically in what follows.

[2] Josef Pieper, In Defense of Philosophy, translated by Lothar Krauth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), p. 14.

[3] Gabriel Marcel, “Testimony and Existentialism,” in The Philosophy of Existentialism, translated by Manya Harari (New York: Citadel Press, 1970), pp. 91-103.

[4] More precisely, Aristotle writes that “happiness seems to be present in leisure, for we engage in unleisured pursuits in order that we may be at leisure” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Joe Sachs (Newbury Point, MA: Focus Publishing, 2002), 1177b).

Edvard LorkovicEdvard Lorkovic

Edvard Lorkovic

Edvard Lorkovic is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Department Chair of Humanities at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada. His teaching and research focus on moral issues in ancient and late modern philosophy.

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