A Tale of Two Philosophies

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There exists in Western philosophy a fundamental divide, between practice and theory.

But philosophy, as conceived by Plato, did not distinguish between the two.

Philosophy is not simply a method of thought, but also a method of action; a way of life. And if we are to become philosophers in truth, we must reconcile this great schism.

This blog post seeks to outline the benefits of such a holistic approach (for the health of philosophy as a discipline, and in the quest for truth), and determine why Plato considered action, rather than thought, as the true outcome of philosophy.

A disconnect with the world

This is one of philosophy’s central problems. But it can, and should, be solved.

If philosophers were to actually live by the ideas they dreamt up, I see three things happening:

  1. More credibility. Because who trusts someone that doesn’t have enough faith in their own ideas to live by them?
  2. Less stigma. It might help to correct the stereotype of the old, abstruse and absent-minded philosopher, instead replacing it with a portrait of the Stoics; virtuous and involved. 
  3. A proliferation of (especially ethical) theories grounded in experience, and pertaining to actual life.

Philosophy, practiced as a way of life, would certainly alleviate, if not solve, the discipline’s rejection from the mainstream thought; which is certainly worth a few sacrifices.

Through experience, we gain knowledge

Common sense philosophy

How can we doubt something we cannot live without? How can we consider something true, when it conflicts with our most fundamental judgement? These are the questions common sense philosophy poses.   

And they are important to consider.

Sometimes, philosophical theories become so abstract that they simply cannot be reconciled with action or reality.

Without the grounding of experience and common sense, philosophy tends to act like a kite without a string, flapping madly in the wind, soaring away with no hope of recapture.

While common sense and experience are far from supreme arbiters, they can serve to ‘cut the crap’, dismissing theories so preposterous as to be inherently unbelievable (except of course to the detached dialectician).

Philosophers who are expected to live by what they think, have actual stake in their ideas, will be forced to reconsider more extreme theories, and hopefully temper their judgement with a dose of reality.

Knowledge is both practical and theoretical

There are some things thought simply does not do justice.

For example: It is good and all to reason about God, but to actually experience God’s presence is a whole ‘nother matter, and cannot be discounted if one is to say something meaningful about Him.

We take a very partial view of knowledge when we regard it as the sort of thing that can be gotten while suspended aloft in a basket. This is to separate knowing from doing, treating students like disembodied brains in jars. . . . To regard universal knowledge as the whole of knowledge is to take no account of embodiment and purposiveness. . . . If thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it. And in fact this is the case: to really know shoelaces, you have to tie shoes.

Matthew Crawford

Knowledge isn’t only universal, but inextricably tied to the individual, his actions and experiences. From individual knowledge we may proceed to the universal. But still individual knowledge, thought bound to action, comes first.  

Knowledge is both practical and theoretical, and if philosophers are ever to understand something, really grasp it’s fundamental essence, philosophy must become a way of life.

Philosophers are like athletes

Philosophers are like athletes, consisting of many different elements working with, or against, each other. They are not disembodied brains in jars (a fact some might lament; how much simpler life would have been!). 

And, just like an athlete, a philosopher can only perform his best when these various elements are in perfect harmony, acting towards a common purpose. 

And when a beautiful soul [mind] harmonizes with a beautiful form [body], and the two are cast in one mould, that will be the fairest of sights to him who has an eye to see it

Plato

First we must harmonize the body and soul. For how can one be a philosopher, but only in mind?

He whose desires are drawn toward knowledge in every form will be absorbed in the pleasures of the soul, and will hardly feel bodily pleasure—I mean, if he be a true philosopher and not a sham one.

Plato

Or, for a more tongue-in-cheek rendition:

An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex

Alduos Huxley

It is only when the desires and purposes of the body have been harnessed towards the pursuit of truth that we can consider ourselves philosophers.

Because philosophy is a commitment to truth, that can only be fulfilled when the mind, body and spirit work in symphony, lest the efforts of one impede the other. Philosophers are like athletes, and can only perform when their whole being is aligned in the pursuit of the Ideal; philosophy becomes a way of life, and not just an intellectual pursuit.

Through virtue we may know truth

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.

Robert Pirsig

We might all agree that through practicing philosophy – ethics and esthetics especially – we might become more virtuous.

But why is this important to the philosopher?

Barring the obvious truth, that it may improve their lives, there is another thing we should take into consideration:

In the Republic, Plato insists philosophers must be virtuous (have a “harmony of character”). 

This is because through virtue, a beautiful soul, we develop a love for beauty itself.

And beauty is synonymous with truth. Maybe not in science, since it describes the world of the senses (which is chaotic and misunderstood). But certainly in mathematics and philosophy, which are theoretical, and must as a result be perfectly-balanced.  

We can see echoes of this idea in Eastern thought, especially Zen and Taiosm; that we may feel, rather than simply know, truth. And Plato acknowledges this:

But if not by knowledge, the only alternative which remains is that statesmen must have guided states by right opinion, which is in politics what divination is in religion; for diviners and also prophets say many things truly, but they know not what they say.

Plato’s “right opinion” is the wisdom of prophets and poets, artists and wise men. It is to know the truth through feeling, that comes from being virtuous; philosophy as a way of life.

(In future I will write a blog post elaborating my thoughts on the matter. The arguments I presented are horribly truncated, because this is not the primary theme of the article.)

On the purpose of philosophy

the keen edge will not be blunted, nor the force of his desire abate until he [the philosopher] have attained the knowledge of the true nature of every essence by a sympathetic and kindred power in the soul, and by that power drawing near and mingling and becoming incorporate with very being, having begotten mind and truth, he will have knowledge and will live and grow truly, and then, and not till then, will he cease from his travail.

Plato

I would like us to note here that Plato considered not truth the end of philosophy, but rather to “live and grow truly”, to live according to truth. Only then will the philosopher’s journey end.

science and truth may be deemed to be like the good, but not the good; the good has a place of honor yet higher.

Plato

Philosophy is not just a pursuit of the truth, but ultimately of the Good; a life lived according to truth.

For what is the point of ethics, if not to teach us to live better? What purpose does esthetics serve, if not to aid us in our creation of beauty? Why do political philosophy, if not so that we may perfectly order our states?

Is not the whole idea of metaphysics to know the perfect ordering of the universe, so that we may order ourselves perfectly within it? And epistemology, that we may know the basis of our actions is sound?

To not live what you think, to not apply philosophy, is to bankrupt it of it’s primary purpose: as the guide not only of human thought, but of human action. Philosophy simply must be a way of life.


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Brian Scoles
4 months ago

I admire your ongoing pursuit. Qoheleth remains the teacher for me; not for the answers that he gives, but for the questions that he raises. He reminds me of what my limits are.