Philosophers and the search for truth

Aristotle_Bust_White_Background_TransparentIt was some twenty-four centuries ago that Aristotle declared wonder (θαυμάζω, “be astonished”, “marvel”) to be the starting point for philosophy as well as its fundamental motivator, for it is because of wonderment that we seek to be freed of ignorance (Aristotle, Metaphysics 982b). I love this description of philosophy, and believe that we who philosophize need to preserve that sense of wonderment, that amazement that first drew us to ask “But how can this be?” and “what is the truth about this world we live in?” For what we want is the truth… the facts about the deepest principles of the world and ourselves.

However, a budding philosopher will soon run up against the fact that those who have taken this path have only rarely been in complete agreement, whether the disagreement is about superficialities or about the deepest questions we can ask. One of the more common responses to this universal disagreement, sometimes even experienced during one’s first class in philosophy, is becoming convinced that the universality of disagreement in philosophy means that truth is nowhere: none of the positions taken by philosophers throughout history is more true than any other.

This skeptical response is certainly tempting, but isn’t the only way we can respond. Instead of trying to become philosophers all by ourselves, and falling victim to skepticism, we can seek out those whom we might call “true” thinkers, and adopt them as our guides to the fantastically complex world of philosophy. When we call a philosopher “true”, we are saying something more than that his or her doctrine is faithful to the world as it is. Rather, we are pointing to those philosophers who feel themselves to be prisoners of the truth, to be enslaved to the search for knowledge, and whose hearts are in love with reality as it lets itself be known.

Every time we turn to read or listen to a great philosopher we become possessed in this way; we feel a pressuring necessity. At every step of his or her arguments, we are pulled along by the internal logic of their position: once we see that if this is true, that must be true. The philosopher cannot go in any direction that the truth does not permit. We can see, upon reading such philosophers, that they are “dragged along” to places they perhaps never expected to go, impelled by the necessity inherent in the fundamental positions they have taken. And it is in a philosopher like this that we will find the truth about the world and ourselves, if we find it anywhere.

This means that when seeking truth in philosophy, we will often do better to first identify the traits of a true philosopher in the philosophers we are studying, seeking to discover how their own experience of wonder is transformed over the years into a mature doctrine that reflects reality deeply, a doctrine that reflects both a mature certainty and a continuing sense of wonder, insofar as the search for truth takes the philosopher ever deeper. The great philosophers are thus a guidebook, so to speak, to the empire of reason.

By entering into the philosophical traditions within which these thinkers work, we find ourselves taking part in a great conversation, a discourse where the philosopher teaches how to seek truth and how we will know it when we find it. And while it may turn out that this philosopher erred in this or that question, he or she may still embody wisdom, which is the result of a lifetime spent seeking truth.

It seems that there is a paradox at work: somehow, in a way that is not entirely transparent, the philosophers we study sometimes achieve wisdom, even though their doctrines may have been decisively refuted. Perhaps it is because of the necessity that the search for truth imposes, or perhaps he or she has delved deeply into reality, and has surfaced with a new respect for the transcendental depth of the world, together with a new respect for those people that struggle to attain to truth. And this includes ourselves, insofar as we too surrender to truth: from wonder, we progress to truth, and perhaps end up wise thanks precisely to that surrender.

What is philosophy good for?

Philosophy, once hailed as the “queen of the sciences”, is now going through bad times, ancillaand they are likely to get worse as the financial crisis deepens and lengthens. For those who take a more pragmatic approach to life, philosophy seems like the perfect example of useless knowledge: “What is philosophy good for?” asked my grandfather, at one point in a recent conversation. He wasn’t convinced by my answer, which focused on the contributions to society provided by philosophy. This experience caused me to rethink the importance of philosophy.

This widespread opinion probably has something to do with declining enrollments in philosophy programs in the U.S. (and abroad; cf. the article by Jaime Nubiola “In Defense of Philosophy”). Philosophy seems neither to bring good salaries, nor does it seem to have coupleany purpose other than eternal arguments, disconnected from the concerns of human life, with no decisive resolution. Truth is supposed to be philosophy’s ultimate goal, but when every philosopher and his brother claims to have it, the easiest conclusion is that no one does. Why, then, should citizens pay to support this discipline in the University curriculum, and support the professors that study and teach it?

One answer is that philosophy has been, either directly or indirectly, an important factor in the development of society over the centuries, ever since human beings acquired the ability to look critically at their own way of living, indeed, their very way of being. We can characterize this critical investigation as “philosophical anthropology” (PA); it was only in the 20th century that this area of study was recognized as a philosophical discipline in its own right, but every philosopher who has had a view on the nature of the human being is, in a real sense, a practitioner.

I contend that this area of study will be critical in the years to come, and that the transhumanism“anthropologies” that are proposed will strongly influence how human beings are treated in society for decades to come. An example is the Transhumanist movement, which redefines human nature by treating it as infinitely malleable, and teaches that more than an option, cooperation in the task of breeding better humans is an ethical obligation. The entire project of transhumanism, as an example, depends on what human beings are and should be; in turn, the study of the human being from the perspective of PA is linked strongly to a number of other philosophical disciplines, such as metaphysics, philosophy of nature, ethics, consciousness theory, political philosophy, philosophy of language and others.

It is the linkage between PA and political and social change that makes it a particularly interesting philosophical discipline, because it is one where the layperson can contribute to its development by supporting philosophy departments that study it. All of those who are interested in the future conditions of the human race can participate, by supporting those philosophy departments that take PA seriously through political action to prevent those departments from being closed, or endowing Chairs in philosophical anthropology, for instance, which can attract new students to the department and post-doc fellowships to study issues of interest to those Chairs.

freedomThe next time somebody asks you “what is philosophy good for”, you can answer “preserving your freedom and rights against those who would take them away”. People need to be made aware of those discourses today that seek to eliminate these crucial elements for a just and free society—corporations, Islam, philosophical antihumanism, among others—and promoting those approaches, such as the Enlightenment project, that seek to protect and strengthen the rights of man. (Another important philosophical task is deciding whether Enlightenment values are still appropriate today, but that’s a topic for another post.) Even Scott Brown might then understand why humanities, and in particular philosophy, will be crucial to the American project over the coming decades.

Inequality and True Patriotism

Two things inspired me to write this short essay: the 4th of July patriotic celebrations of this year, and Jaime Nubiola’s latest post about the growing radical inequality that plagues the United States and numerous other countries (mostly in the third world). My article will use the United States as its reference for talking about patriotism, but I think what I say can be applied to any country.

flagWhen people from other countries come to the US, they are frequently a bit awed at the sheer number of American flags: on people’s homes, on cars, as tattoos, on clothing, in billboard advertising and a variety of other contexts. These symbols are carried in the heart, as well: Americans for the most part, genuinely love their country. In America, then, we have a strange situation: we love the symbols of our country, while the plight of those who have to suffer the consequences of inequality is ignored. We are a country that combines high ideals–which we truly believe in–with a striking cruelty towards those who have fallen down the economic ladder. homeless signThis is a situation explained by a Spanish proverb: ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente (eyes that don’t see, a heart that doesn’t feel). The cruelty we inflict on those in poverty is cruelty due to blindness; we live our lives and hardly ever see the truly poor because we train our eyes not to see them.

As Jaime Nubiola has recently noted, the growth of a huge gap between the economic and cultural situations of the rich and the poor means that those who are poor are left in economic and social systems that can imply great suffering, while the rich become even more crazily wealthy. It cannot be patriotic to see and allow the real benefits of our country’s ideals to gradually become restricted only to those who can pay for them. It cannot be the case that you need to pay substantial amounts of money in order to enjoy the fundamental benefits of being an American citizen. Nor should a person have to pay in order to enjoy basic human rights. But this is the trajectory we are on: one example (of many) is voting, which has votingbecome a superfluous luxury for the poor. The working poor can lose their jobs for being absent, or they may simply desperately need the money they make at work. Imagine a thousand “little” deprivations of this sort, and taken all together it adds up to a life of misery and lack of justice.

There are many ways to love one’s country, to be a patriot. One can love a place simply because it is one’s own. This is the patriotism of the man or woman who says “Where else would I want to go? We have the best of the best right here!” Another kind of patriotism is that which celebrates the power of one’s country, or which dreams about one’s country becoming strong. We see this kind of patriotism all the time in the United States: from the urge to conquer and impose democracy on unlikely countries, to the popularity of movies about World War Two, where Yankee strength and ingenuity saved Europe from Hitler and the Pacific Rim from Japanese expansionism. But this is not the patriotism that is most characteristic of the United States; rather, we feel that we have the right to spread democratic and capitalist values because we truly feel that, because of them, our country is the very best that there is on this earth.

rushmoreWhat, however, are we loving when we love our country this way? If we look around, the “United States” is difficult to find. We can look in its buildings, its cars, its lakes, its schools, its weapons of war, and, finally, its people. None of these is “the country”; this inability to locate the country and put one’s finger on it leads, naturally, to the production of symbols that will represent the whole. Hence the popularity of flags, monuments and songs, which somehow manage to summarize the entirety of the greatness of one’s country.

But to really find a country one must look in the hearts and consciousness of its citizens. The place that one’s country lives is fundamentally in the human heart. Countries live and function because we believe in their existence. When enough key people cease to believe in its existence, a country ceases to be and another (or several) eventually arise in its place, as nearly happened to the United States during our Civil War. A strong country exists, in part, when the leaders have the same vision of it as do its people. A strong country also, however, requires high ideals that can serve as a compass for the direction of the country as a whole.

Cheap and easy patriotism focuses on the symbols: raising the flag, singing the hymns, participating in parties small and large, visiting one’s country’s monuments. None of which is bad, but if it goes no further it remains hollow, because one is polandnot looking beyond the symbolism to the real things a country consists in: the human beings that are the home of the country’s ideals. One excellent example of this is Poland, which ceased to be an independent state in 1795; during the two centuries that followed (with the exception of the ill-fated Second Polish Republic), the Polish people kept their country alive in their hearts, and after the fall of the Iron Curtain a new Polish republic arose in fulfillment of the promise that their patriotism had held onto those many years.

In the context of growing economic inequity, the truest patriotism will love one’s country’s symbols, but will love even more those human beings who carry the ideals, and therefore the survival, of their country within them. Indeed, a country can legitimately be judged in the light of how it treats those who are most vulnerable. In the case of the United States, the ghettogrowth of inequality leads to millions falling into extreme poverty, or else into working situations that are little less than slavery: egregiously long working hours, low pay, no vacations, little or no opportunity for advancement, living in high-crime residential areas (ghettos) and, prior to the arrival of so-called Obamacare (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), no healthcare.

The patriotic duty, then, of those who love their country, is to do their small part to assure that basic human rights and dignity are enjoyed by all those who really (ontologically) make up the country, for it is in their hearts that the values and truths of the nation are carried and cherished. Patriotism wants to be able to say “My/our country is best”, and a country that mistreats those who are most vulnerable will not be the greatest patriotic boycountry in the eyes of others (it may, indeed, be a mockery in those eyes), nor, in the depths of the heart and mind, will it be greatest in the eyes of its own citizens. One cannot, I believe, say that one is a patriot while refusing to make the effort to ensure that the great aspirations and values inscribed in our constitution are made incarnate in our treatment of the poor that make up our new underclass. Our country is failing if it does not work hard to ensure that the rights our constitution and Bill of Rights guaranteed to us can be effectively lived out by those even at the bottom of our social hierarchy.

The value of “lost” friendships

Recently my friend Jaime Nubiola posted on this blog a reflection entitled “Time for Friendship”, about the difficulties of maintaining friendships over the years, when distanfriendshipce and simple lack of physical contact can undermine even deep friendships. Time spent together, in person, over a beer or cup of coffee, adventures experienced together, working together, sometimes even suffering together, these are the things that keep a friendship strong and healthy. The reality of our lives, however, is that distance, work and family can prevent us from dedicating this time to every friend, and sometimes the relationship withers for lack of care.

The tremeletter writingndous value of friendship in our lives means that we must struggle to keep such friendships from suffering this fate whenever we can; letters, emails, phone calls, periodic visits, can all function to keep a friendship alive to some degree, and with those few people who are soul mates, the affectionate relationship will always blossom again when these opportunities for contact arise. However, there are occasions when life simply carries us far from our old friends and the living, vibrant relationship becomes fossilized, living primarily in our memories and in the souvenirs of correspondence and time spent together.

This realization can be a gloomy one, but it need not be, for there are important ways in which a friendship, once developed, can never be lost. In particular, we become who we are as persons partly through the influence of our friends, and as a result even a person whom we may never see again can continue to live on within us, exercising an important influence over our life.

In parts of Spain (especially in the region of Navarra and the Basque Country, which I am most familiar with) there is a tradition called the “cuadrilla”: this is an institution of friendship between a small group of men or women, usually four or five, who make a commitment cuadrillaearly in life to become permanently united in a way that they will be with no one else. It is said that it can be harder to leave your cuadrilla than it is to get a divorce, and that you only escape by moving to another country or dying, or both. As a result of this powerful experience of friendship, a person becomes a different man or women than he or she would have been otherwise, as a result of being valued, listened to and helped throughout his or her life.

Not all friendships are as serious and long-lasting as the cuadrilla relationship, but they still have a powerful effect on us precisely because of the fact that in them, especially in the deepest relationships, we have the experience of being valued for ourselves and not for any benefit we might bring or any role we might be playing. It is no accident that those who have the most and best friendships in their lives are those who are usually the most “humanized”, for in friendship we learn many human skills that make our lives much, much better. In particular, we learn that it is possible to love and be loved in a pure, non-utilitarian way, something that we all too often do not experience in our other relationships, especially those of work and community. Even family can treat us more in terms of our being a good son or daughter, or a good husband or father, than in terms of our own value as persons independently of anything we can do or provide.

Friendship is a mirror in which we can see ourselves truly in a way that is very life-giving: when our friend calls us up to have a beer or coffee with us, or invites us to go mountain-mirrorclimbing with him or her, or asks us to come to a special party with other friends, we are experiencing the warmth of being valued just for ourselves, and if we are wise we will learn to base our opinions of ourselves more on these experiences of friendly love and affection than on our successes or failures in the many roles we must play in life. The person with at least a few good friends will know him or herself as he or she really is for others at a non-superficial level: in friendship we are seen deeply by others and still desired, despite our flaws.

Another of the great gifts of friendship that helps us to become more human is the way in which our friends provide windows onto aspects of reality, of the world, that we couldwindow never see by ourselves. Because our friends are different people, their vision on the world will not always align with our own, but we can learn from them to see the world in a way that takes us beyond our own rigid categories. We learn to see beauty in things we would never have noticed otherwise, to value activities or people or books or art or sports, or a multitude of other things, just because we enjoy spending time with our friends doing things they like to do. In this way, we become enriched by new ways of thinking, feeling and experiencing the world.

As Kant points out in the Metaphysics of Morals, one of the things that friendship involves is taking on your friend’s (legitimate) ends and purposes as your own. In this way, as you develop in friendship with another person, you become seeded with deep expressions of that other person’s spirit: his or her goals and dreams and hopes. If you are a true friend, you wish for him or her the best of what that person wishes for him or herself. And in the end, these ends naturally end up becoming ends and goals for you, things that you see as worthy.

All of these gifts of friendship are not lost when you are no longer able to spend as much time with your old friends as you might like. While it is of course best to commit ourselves to spending important amounts of time with those who love us this way, the gifts we receive (mirroring the gifts we give) from friendship do not disappear just because a particular relationship has grown cool.

thinkingWhen we have to leave the context of a given friendship, either because we move away, become too involved in family or work, or simply change as persons, we nonetheless carry within us, like a tattoo that can fade but never disappear, the mark of the people we have allowed into our lives as friends. They remain inside of us as the foundation for whatever we may later come to be, and as a result even “lost” friendships maintain their value: they provide us the ability to make new friends in other, new circumstances, because we now know what it is to love and be loved as a friend, and we remain able to love ourselves in a way we otherwise could not thanks to the experience of being valued just for ourselves.

In this sense, the only way to truly “lose” a friendship is to reject or forget the gifts that it gave us. While being able to spend time in the physical presence of another person is not always within our control, our ability to maintain the vision of who we were/are in that friendship is within our control, and living that out can be the best way to honor a great friend whom we may no longer be able to be with in the flesh.