The Healing of Philosophy

by John Clark

Philosophy is in decline. You hear it all the time. The evidence is regularly trotted out: fewer graduates; no jobs; no prospects; a lack of interest from the culture, etc. It’s become a tedious verity.

But hold on, how can that be? The oracle of the humanities cast out of public discourse, lost and forgotten. Really? Do we collectively not love wisdom anymore? In our modern world, have we cast off the mantle of being wise earth-dwellers; of being Homo sapiens? Have we somehow come to be above it all? Are we no longer enamored of our collective role amongst all creatures on the planet of being reasonable? That can’t be right. What are we if not wise? Knowledge and good choices, these things are timeless, inescapable. What’s happened to us? What’s happened to our collective minds to permit philosophy’s decline?

Something’s very wrong. We’ve become alienated from ourselves. Philosophy must be sick. There’s an illness afoot, a broad mental affliction that’s spread amongst humanity; dare I say it, a pandemic. No, not that one, a different one; one that’s been around much longer; one that’s been building for centuries; an illness of mind, of culture, and of society.  It’s the only thing that can explain our collective lack of interest in wisdom; the decline of our love for the essence of who we are.

We need a doctor, and Galen comes to mind. He famously said, “The best doctor is also a philosopher.” Perhaps medicine can help. Alas, medicine is sick too. Physicians are killing themselves at an alarming rate. Burnout in is pervasive and expanding and is more prominent in medicine than in any other profession. Doctors are suffering and dying. The healers themselves are ill and in need of healing. Perhaps the pandemic of mind has also afflicted them.

I’m a doctor. I burned out. I became mentally afflicted and was in decline. It wasn’t pretty. I’ve tried to recover. Thankfully, I was saved … by philosophy. I’m serious. Healing my mind came in the form of healing my wisdom and my knowledge and my sense of the good. I discovered that medicine needs philosophy to be well. But I’ve also come to believe that philosophy needs medicine to recover from its own decline. Philosophy and medicine can help one another. The best philosopher is also a doctor, one who understands disorders of thought and what’s good for humanity. And humanity needs both to work together so as to heal our collective wisdom and not only save philosophy but medicine and indeed the world.

Healing first requires a diagnosis; a thorough understanding of the illness before the appropriate treatment can be applied. From within my own burnout and recovery, I made such a diagnosis, one born of a simple observation from within my own disintegration: that it was through being more emotional rather than less that I got better. Profound questions arose, not the least of which was “what is an emotion?” Such questions inexorably lead to questions of knowledge and the good, timeless philosophic questions. They led me to my self-diagnosis as well as medicine’s. Yet through my inquires they also led to a diagnosis of the ills of philosophy and its decline, and you’re not going to like what I found.

Ataraxia.

It’s the illness of hyper-intellectualization, of extreme estrangement from our passions. It is a pathologically abstracted mental state born of excess objectivity, unyielding detachment, and a profound lack of sensitivity to life. Its symptoms are those of being becalmed of mind, nihilistically unmoved, and lost in doldrums of knowing. Thus, by nature, it is both an ethical and epistemic illness. Ataraxia is here used less in the epicurean sense of perpetual tranquility born of “freedom” from “negative” emotions (e.g. anxiety) and more in the stoic sense of freedom from mental/emotional disturbance (though both are still here considered mentally incarcerating and unhealthy in their own way). To understand the etiology of such an illness, one must have an understanding of the human mind as well as disorders in its currently dominant formulation in the culture in terms intellect and emotion and how each contributes to knowledge and the good.

The human intellect evolved to solve problems. It employs a willfully executed mental process assessing perceptual input that is conscious, slow, methodical, reductive, abstract and designed to produce objective mechanistic knowledge that enables one to exert control over the future (i.e. plan). This process is generally referred to as thinking. Technology is one of its byproducts. Inevitably, intellect considers as anathema its converse: a mental process assessing perceptual input that is subconscious, spontaneous, fast, intuitive, wholistic, relational and designed to produce subjective economic knowledge (knowledge of gain and loss) applicable to the present. I am speaking, of course, of emotions. Given the centrality of willful control to the intellect, burnout and ataraxia are afflictions of the hyper-controlled mind and its suppression of the spontaneous mind. The signs and symptoms of such hyper-intellectualization and its ills can be observed, from ancient times to the present day.

In terms of philosophy, examples of hyper-intellectualization are myriad. Democritus, the pre-Socratic philosopher deemed by some the father of modern science for his observation-based, atomist theories of matter, deemed knowledge garnered through sensual experience as “bastard” knowledge that is inherently errant, while characterizing knowledge obtained through the application of the intellect as “legitimate.”1  Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, elevated the unaffected mind in terms of the classic Stoic calm: “A bad feeling is a commotion of mind repugnant to reason, and against nature.”2 René Descartes’ epistemic struggles led to his project of doubt that ended with his seminal thought “I think therefore I am,” which conspicuously excludes feelings from among the self-evident truths defining our existence.3 But, it may have been Baruch Spinoza who was the most strident in his declaration of the primacy of the intellect in his 1677 Ethics,

Without intelligence there is not rational life: and things are only good, in so far as they aid man in his enjoyment of the intellectual life, which is defined by intelligence. Contrariwise, whatsoever things hinder man’s perfecting of his reason, and capability to enjoy the rational life, are alone called evil.4

Modern philosophy hasn’t been much kinder to the emotions. Nietzsche’s nihilism, so influential in modernity, expresses a denial of emotion by way of its dismissal of morality: “(M)oralities are … merely a sign language of the affects.”5 Jesse Prinz, in his Gut Reactions, excludes uncontrolled emotions from the realms of cognition by declaring, “If emotions are cognitive, they must be under cognitive control.”6 Ronald De Sousa, in his The Rationality of Emotion, also argues against emotional cognition by stating that “emotions are not beliefs”7 and as such cannot be justified or true and thus can’t be a form of knowledge. Even modern dual process theory, which purports to incorporate emotionality into our global mental function, subsumes emotion under an intellectual paradigm, exemplified by Daniel Kahnaman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow (2011).8  The emotive mind doesn’t think but feels, and all of these philosophies highlight the Western refusal to accept emotions into the category of knowledge, that most vaulted tier of human mental life.

To be sure there have been philosophical reactions against this kind of hyper-intellectualization. The notion of embracing motivation through spontaneous mental abandon as opposed to intentional free will is embodied in the German Sturm und Drang (storm and drive) movement of the late 1700’s that rebelled against the rational constraints of Enlightenment and embraced the free expression of extremes of emotion in guiding motivation. This movement gave birth to the German Counter-Enlightenment and the Romanticism of the early 1800’s with that movement’s reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature and it’s mechanistic offspring, the Industrial Revolution.9; 10 Trust in emotion lies at the heart of such philosophical movements as Transcendentalism in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, with its belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature and the reliability of human intuition.11  Such counter formulations of the human mind in terms of intuitive affect can be seen as calls for balance. Yet they have largely faded as time has passed and remain as little more than echoes of a bygone ethos.

Intellectual dominion hasn’t remained confined within our minds but has flowed out to dominate our culture. Humanity has come to deeply identify with its intellect and regard itself though a reductionist, mechanistic lens. Brain science is all the rage as we express the essence of who we are in terms of one singular, disembodied human organ. Science, the paradigmatic process of intellectual knowing, is recruited to answer virtually every inquiry, and technology, scientific intelligence’s greatest by-product, is deployed to address virtually every problem. Billions are fed on cultivated and domesticated food, live in constructed habitations, travel vast distances in elaborate machines, surrounded themselves with all kinds of advanced appliances, and communicate through virtual means. Human technology has come to profoundly impact the planet itself by illuminating the night, altering the atmosphere, and terraforming the land. The noosphere – the area of the earth influenced by the human intellect – can now arguably be said to blanket the entire planet and has established what some have called the  age of the Anthropocene.12

 The future of humanity is envisioned largely in intellectual terms. There is in popular culture today a common myth regarding the unlocked mental potential of human beings, potential thought to lay in the sphere of intellect.13  The fact that there is vigorous human effort being expended on artificial intelligence but nothing is ever heard of artificial intuition evinces humanity’s bias for the controlled, volitional aspect of its mind. Scientific positivism, while tarnished, still pervades our culture. There is even mythical, futuristic talk of a coming singularity when our exponentially growing collective intellectual knowledge will, through technology, somehow empower humanity to “transcend biology” and become something “post-human.”14, 15 These ideas posit the human intellect’s capacity to escape not only our bodies but our given nature. Finally, tech entrepreneur Byron Reese, in his book Infinite Progress (2013), gives words to the secret Icarian dream of human consciousness since its emergence regarding the intellect’s ability to solve the ultimate problem facing human life:

Since technology grows exponentially, not in a linear way, we will see dramatic improvements in our way of life in just a few years. … There is a real chance you will never die, since mortality may be just a technical problem we solve.16

Is any of this dysfunctional? While the power of the intellect is indeed showcased by all these achievements, one need not look far to find any number of ills inflicted by our hyper-intellectualization. Some examples:

  • Following an intellectual bias in conceptualizing ourselves, we have deconstructed human nature, sub-atomized our understanding of ourselves, and reduced ourselves to biological machines. In so doing we have annihilated the emergent value of our humanity. The parts of us not amenable to rational, mechanistic understanding and control are being ignored and forgotten.
  • The advancing capacity for manipulating the human genome in the service of some arbitrarily genetic ideal threatens to make us forget our naturally wild, created human nature and to limit the rich resource that is our individual variation.
  • Technology has pulled us away from our immediate circumstance into an abstracted reality. For the purposes of being connected, countless humans walk around mesmerized by tiny glowing “smart” screens that make them both disconnected from their relations and unaware of their present situation. This mental abstraction is evidently sickening the human mind. 17, 18
  • Millions have violently died in modern, mechanized warfare fought for control over natural resources and conceptual markets; wars made necessary by rational, population-based strategies that are inherently unmindful of intimate human suffering.
  • Through the numeric insulation of the stock market, we have abstracted financial decisions from their real-world, human consequences and in so doing have damaged our empathy. The social responsibility we have for the relational effects on both others and our globe by our investing has been rationalized into an insensitive, arithmetic haze of guiltless oblivescence.
  • By the abstract leveraging of unrealized future income into the present day, we have lost our grasp on the hard, financial realities of the present moment and created a toxic fiscal brew that threatens economic catastrophe.
  • Through the reductionist investigation of the nature of matter, we have unleashed the deranged nuclear capacity for the atomic annihilation of our whole society.
  • Uninformed human technological effect on our world has unknowingly created widespread havoc in the form of such disasters as: The Dust Bowl; The Great London Smog of 1952; acid rain; the ever-growing list of vast environmental oil spills; the Bhopal chemical plant disaster; the Chernobyl nuclear explosion; the eutrophied Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone; the Pacific Gyre garbage patch; the sixth mass extinction of life on the Earth; and more.
  • The widespread burning of long-extinct fossilized life on earth as well as the earth’s living forests in order to fuel our efforts for control is polluting the very air that blankets our globe on which we so intimately depend and threatens our species with its own globally heated extinction.

Madness traditionally has been considered a state of being “out of your mind.” But there is a different kind of madness, one that comes from being too much in control of one’s mind. The unbalanced human striving for power and control over the mind and over existence has created a self-inflicted cognitive impairment that is perversely leading humanity to alienation, chaos, and self-destruction. Call this cultural affliction the Dementia Imperium; the madness of control. It is the hieratic offspring of Descartes’ cogito, a result of assessing existence purely through the act of thinking.

Our species is losing its passionate, intuitive knowledge of value by way of rational reduction and intellectual abstraction. We appear not to know what we are doing to ourselves in our hyper-intellectualized Lethean haze and have forgotten our place in the world. We seem to have lost our instinct for survival. The dominant culture collectively sails on undeterred from its course as if demented, staying rigidly faithful to the idea of intellectual salvation and oblivious to the tempests laying on the horizon. Together, we have lost our minds.

Consider the metaphor of “burnout.” Something fiery, hot, bright, dynamic, energetic, and enlivening has gone out. What in the human psyche fits this description, if not our passions? Medicine heals itself by coming out of its hyper-controlled head and into the uncontrolled wilds of the heart to rediscover the empathy that is its raison d’être. It must relearn how to be vulnerable and affected by the suffering of others, which is both frightening and hard. Yet medicine is familiar with struggles between the uncontrolled and the controlled; between mystery and knowledge. Patients come to us with a mystery in the form of their symptoms, and the physician must strive to come to a state of knowledge in the form of a diagnosis, if any healing is to begin. A key aspect to such medical wisdom is the sober acceptance of the uncontrolled. The manifest fact of a universal human mortality makes the reality of this painfully evident in medicine. Healing medicine in the face of such uncontrolled reality requires accepting humanity’s powerlessness and our collective unknowing while at the same time exercising compassion.

Extending this medical lesson to the culture, to heal from the Dementia Imperium, we must rediscover that our passions are the ground of our compassions and that the health of our societies depends on the latter; that hope for a brighter human future depends upon our commitment to not just the individual good, but the common good. Extending medicine’s lesson to philosophy, there is wisdom in accepting the uncontrolled aspects of the mind. We can be reasonably passionate. Therein lies a good. To heal from ataraxia, philosophy needs to accept and embrace the wilds of the mind. It needs to make peace with the wilds of the mind and to manage the conflicted interplay between them and the domesticated intellect, to find a mental balance that’s neither too instinctual nor too rational. Wisdom and Reason both are found in such balance. There is no other way.

The decline of philosophy is found not in any errors of rationality but in its alienation from the human experience. Philosophy itself is struggling with burnout. Its fire is waning through cold, intellectual domestication. If philosophy is ever to heal, it will need to have the courage to break out of this insipid prison. If it is ever to to be whole and healthy, it will need to free itself and let itself go wild. It must boldly venture out into spontaneous untamed regions of human awareness to discover, not humanity’s controlled, constructed, and civilized self, but it’s wild, natural, and fierce one. Philosophy needs to emerge from its safe, orderly tower and come out into the frightening, conflicted, dirty, painful, bloody and beautiful world that we live in.

Dr. Clark is a practicing physician with a BA in biochemistry from UC Berkeley and an MD from UC Davis. He has worked for twenty-five years doing full scope family medicine in Salinas, CA and is an Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine through UCSF. He teaches an Art and Philosophy in Medicine course to medical students and residents though Natividad Family Medicine Residency Program in Salinas.

Notes

  1. Fr. 135 (Bakalis (2005)): Theophrastus 12, De Sensu [On the Senses], 49–83.
  2. As quoted in Tusculanae Quaestiones by Cicero, iv. 6.
  3. Descartes, René. A Discourse on Method. London: J.M. Dent, 1912. Print
  4. Spinoza, Benedictus De. Ethics, Demonstrated in Geometrical Order. Part V, Appendix V, 1667.
  5. Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil. 1886, p 187
  6. Prinz, Jesse J. Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. p 48. Print
  7. De Sousa, Ronald. The Rationality of Emotion. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1987. p 173. Print
  8. Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Print
  9. Garland, H. B. Storm and Stress: (Sturm Und Drang). London: Harrap, 1952. Print
  10. Pascal, Roy. “The “Sturm Und Drang” Movement.” The Modern Language Review2 (1952): 129.
  11. Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007. Print.
  12. Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Age of Man.” National Geographic Mar. 2011: 20-25. Print
  13. Beyerstein, Barry L. (1999), “Whence Cometh the Myth that We Only Use 10% of our Brains?”, in Della Salla, Sergio, Mind Myths: Exploring Popular Assumptions About the Mind and Brain, Wiley, p. 11
  14. Vinge, Vernor. The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive the Post Human Era, 1993. http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Global/Singularity/sing.html. Retrieved 28 Sept., 2015
  15. Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Viking, 2005. Print
  16. Reese, Byron. Infinite Progress: How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger, and War. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group, 2013. Print.
  17. Kuss, Daria J., and Mark D. Griffiths. “Online Social Networking and Addiction, A Review of the Psychological Literature.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 8, no. 12, 2011, pp. 3528–3552.
  18. Twenge, Jean M., et al. “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” Clinical Psychological Science, November 14, 2017.

88 comments

  1. A stimulating essay on the cerebrotonic nature of academic philosophy, slicing and dicing ever finer. How are we to engage the whole person? My suggestion is not in the least original. We must cultivate our own gardens as Voltaire said and not be so obsessed with the evil machinations of our neighbours. I mean that literally. Go into your patch and dig it by hand. Plant flowers and vegetables. Take up a craft and feel the satisfaction of making things. These are simple things of known therapeutic value and at the end of it you have a nice spoon, stool, sweater or cross stitch sampler.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An interesting analogy of Voltaire’s that you bring up. A garden is the literal intersection between the constructed human world and the untouched natural world. It is a blend of the domesticated and the wild and thus a tangible metaphor for the relationship between the controlled and the uncontrolled. Thus the garden’s about our homes inevitably reflect the tense relation between our intellects and our passions that exists within the gardens of our minds at the threshold between the two.

      Like

  2. A healthy chess-player is going to do more than play chess, but when playing chess will play chess, not paint the pieces pretty colors and play with them as though they were dolls. And a healthy philosopher will be doing more than philosophizing. She will have stuff to philosophize about. But when philosophizing she will be perfectly rational. Philosophy should be more rational, not less rational. Philosophy needs to free itself from cultural and professional biases, and become more rational. But it has always had the whole of human experience to philosophize about, is my thoughts on this (I also think that this article was very well written, and addresses a serious issue).

    Like

    1. But are there not healthy biases? Is not the bias that “We take these truths to be self evident, that all women and men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” a good bias to start our assessments and decision making with? Can we pursue being truly happy if we are purely rational?

      Like

  3. This is a lovely, challenging and provocative essay. Having said that I am not sure if I agree more than I disagree.
    Each of us who have been through a burnout phase will have their own anecdotes that describe their own passage to recovery. This is my anecdote.

    I excelled in the brutal, competitive corporate world because it tapped into my own brutally competitive, take no prisoners nature.

    But this has a price and the debt collector comes in the form of burnout and midlife crisis. My mind was roiled by conflicting emotions, conflicting demands and conflicting goals. So how did I cope without sacrificing my career? I did not want to resort to drink, drugs or wild parties, though I did experiment with a mistress. I did not want to buy a Harley-Davidson. Instead I started endurance running. Long distances. I started mountain hiking. Extreme. I discovered the sacred in life. Delight.

    When I started out on this new path I was looking for a refuge in numbing physical fatigue by driving my body to its utmost limits. I succeeded in this but made an unexpected discovery. When you run long distances and hike long distances you are usually with other people but you are alone in your mind. And this was new for me. I routinely run for three hours on an almost daily basis and this has become three hours of meditative reflection. As I run, I observe the events of the day, understand them, order them and settle them in my mind. My cognition takes back control. My emotions become untangled and my days infused with new joyful purpose. My running is physically taxing but emotionally refreshing and healing because it provides the time and space for my mind to order my emotions.

    So, in a sense I agree with you in that I got back in touch with my body, and most importantly, with nature and the sacred. But I disagree, in the sense that this provided the space and opportunity for my cognition to take back control in a way that was harmonious with my body, harmonious with my emotions, and harmonious with my environment, allowing me to find meaning and purpose. to discover the sacred.

    So when you say

    It must boldly venture out into spontaneous untamed regions of human awareness to discover, not humanity’s controlled, constructed, and civilized self, but it’s wild, natural, and fierce one.

    I must politely disagree with you. The “wild, natural, and fierce ” are unruly beasts that unleash the worst in us because they reside in us. We cannot suppress them because then we kill part of ourselves. We cannot allow them to rule us because then our lives run out of control. But we can find a way to harmonize them with the best in us, with our impulse towards the true, the good and the beautiful. This is the role of cognition and I discovered this in my long, lonesome runs and hikes that gave my cognition the time and space to do this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m relived that you found health and healing from your burnout through harmonizing your mind. But if harmonizing means working together in concert, perhaps it was as much your emotions that untangled your thoughts as much as your thoughts that untangled your emotions. Perhaps cognitive harmony needs both to provide a knowing of their own. Perhaps cognition comes from permitting neither the intellect nor the emotive to rule but having both humbly work together in an equal tandem within a tense dynamic relationship where each provides something that the other can’t possibly and both together create something greater the sum of the two.

      Like

  4. ombhurbhuva,
    Take up a craft and feel the satisfaction of making things. These are simple things of known therapeutic value and at the end of it you have a nice spoon, stool, sweater or cross stitch sampler.”

    This is excellent advice.

    Over more than a million years we evolved as tool makers. As a consequence this tactile, creative process is deeply necessary to our sense of wellbeing. The cornucopia that is industry has removed the need for the crafts but it has impoverished us emotionally.

    Like

  5. Perhaps it is not philosophy that is declining but the civilization that is aging, and finding that all the questions it could ever ask have been answered in a thousand ways. A young man will naturally question everything with a greater passion and intensity than his elder. Even if you attempt to answer something, you will find a wall of books and literature, on anything you could ever seek.

    You need a certain lack of knowledge, a certain… agressiveness – as western philosophy has branched out, so has eastern philosophy moved inside itself. They write treaties, we write novels. A western philosophy is mostly finished, having explored pretty much every branch possible, from theology, sholasticism, epistemics, philollogy, semantics, you’ll find a dozen great minds. Camus was the last “thinking” philosopher in the west for us, while Solzenyitsin was our last “prosaic” philosopher. It is impossible for a new soul to even attempt anything really, other than to mask philosophy in prose or poetry.

    An era of hard sciences, followed by cultural decline due to a lack of suffering? A content society might not even need philosophy. A middle-class society will always find philosophy to be amusing nonsense perhaps. All roads are now ending – all defenses of democracy, monarchy, tyranny, republics, have been written. All attacks too. All ethical systems explored. All patterns observed.

    No matter how passionate, if you discover what you think has been thought by dozens of minds greater than you, naturally, you must fall silent.

    Like

    1. Philosophy – Greek philos “love” + sophos “wisdom” – exists not in the words or works of others or those long dead but wells up within our living selves in the form of our own love of wisdom. Respectfully, if we silence this love and don’t let it sing out into our lives to guide our path we ourselves are dead.

      Like

  6. Since birth of human all illness body contain but there is cure naturally.The illness due to living life effect but Nature cure it with time living and make habitual living.Medicines human study is useful diagnosis are usefull and helpfull

    Like

  7. I have long bemoaned the excessive rationalism of mainline philosophy. That said, so have some very significant philosophers, most notably David Hume, who famously subordinated reason to the passions.

    That said, the essay seems to me to swing too far by in the other direction. The Romanticism it seems to channel — while a wonderful development for the arts — has played a far worse role in our social and political life than the Enlightenment that preceded it. Indeed, I would argue that it is partly what gave us German and Italian style fascism.

    Of course, the author also calls for a balance of reason and sentiment, which I agree with, so he may *not* be advocating for the sort of Romanticism I find worrying.

    Like

    1. Yes. More balance, less hyper-intellectualization. But in a hyper-intellectualized culture, that means moving away from rationality and back toward emotionality and embracing/rediscovering emotion as equally necessary to cognition and reason.

      Like

    2. Yes, less hyper-intellectualization and more balance. But in a hyper-intellectualized world, that means moving away from rationality and toward emotionality. It means becoming more emotional and accepting both intellect and emotion as equal balanced participants in their own way in our cognition and reason.

      Like

  8. I’m not a philosopher, but I got into philosophy more deeply 25 years ago or so when I was around 50 and I realized that I no longer believed in many of the values I had believed in since I was a teenager when I rebelled against the values of my parents. At the same I felt no attraction towards the values of my parents or conservative values in general.

    I’ve always questioned most conventional wisdom and even non-conventional wisdom. A friend once commented, as a put-down, that I spent my adult life questioning things that no one else over age 18 questions. That hurt at the time, but it no longer does.

    With philosophy I learned that questioning is ok, even questioning the questioning. That in some way re-centered my life: the center is questioning.

    I’m more drawn to philosophers who question, Socrates (of the Apology), Nietzsche, Foucault, who question what the Argentinian philosopher Dario Sztajnszrajber calls “hegemonic common sense”. It keeps me relatively sane and when I run into from to time others who question and question and often feel weird about that,. I can reach out and validate their questioning.

    Like

  9. If this is the same John Clark who I knew back from his Loyola days and whom I interviewed for a publication called Organica in the 90s, AND who was so generous enough to thank me in the acknowledgments of his book – it is so good to see him here. This piece could not be more timely.

    Like

  10. Ah it’s a different John Clark. My apologies for the confusion. The other John Clark was not a physician. Still a good piece/

    Like

  11. Dear John, Philosophers must surely welcome a contribution made by someone from the world of medicine – a profession that is under so much stress at the moment with Covid and nonetheless, performing so heroically. Your paper is full of interesting comments on the causes and cures of the ‘burnout’ that so many, including yourself, are experiencing at the moment. There are two points that you make, however, that I think need a little more reflection.

    1) You talk of ‘excess objectivity’ as if it were a kind of pathological state, but is it not the total disregard for objectivity that is pathologically plaguing the political scene at the moment? As a doctor, you cannot be too happy, for example about those who regard the Covid pandemic as ‘fake news’, let alone that the US election was completely rigged.

    2) Your consistent opposition of reason to emotion is misleading insofar as all emotions have a rational element. We give reasons for why we are cheerful, sad or angry and indeed that is how we come to learn about them in the first place. Contrary to what you say, Descartes’ famous ‘cogito’ does not ignore emotions deliberately, because insofar as any emotion is a kind of thinking about the world, he could as well have said ‘I’m sad, therefore I exist’, based on the assumed premise that sadness is kind of thinking. For example, what is the first thing we often say to a little child who is upset? ‘Why are you so sad this morning?’ The child may well be tearful and upset but not without reason – maybe someone teased him, or maybe he got it wrong? And so the discussion starts.

    Contrary to what you say, most philosophers have had much to say about the emotions – even the Enlightenment Philosopher, David Hume, who famously said ‘Reason is, and ought always to be, the slave of the passions’! A dilemma does emerge, however, for some philosophers as far apart as Plato and Sartre, who view the emotions as a threat to our autonomy, insofar as, when we are ‘in their grip’, we can no longer be in the driving seat of our actions.

    For the rest, I would agree with you that the best philosophy is that which starts with specific dilemmas thrown up by the untidy, messy world in which we live (which does not mean that philosophy itself should necessarily be untidy and messy!). I will end with a quotation from Nietszche, a philosopher whom you accuse of denying emotion: ‘You must experience chaos within’ he said, ‘if you would give birth to a dancing star’.

    Like

    1. My argument against excess objectivity is less against objectivity and more its excess.
      There are errors/illnesses of both excess objectivity and excess subjectivity. I argue more for balance and an embracing of both equally as necessary for reason. What is in opposition is not emotion and reason but emotion and intellect. The point is that it is the equal balance between the two that embodies true reason and wisdom. I simply make the argument that historically there has been much more said/written philosophically regarding the dangers of excess emotion than the dangers of excess intellect and that we currently live in a world with a hyper-intellectualized bias for intellectual cognition.

      Like

      1. Well, I sympathise with much of what you have to say and I would add that for me, the kind of philosophy that most supports your case would be the bucket loads of ponderous theory poured over our heads by the Structuralist Theories of the last 40 years or so – e.g, Foucault, who famously said that: ‘Clarity is a bourgeois virtue!’ By contrast, Descartes took the view that that philosophy should always be expressed as simply as possible in ‘clear and distinct ideas’. The Empiricists too, deeply distrusted overly theoretical abstraction and always advocated plunging into reality through direct observation of the world, Both schools, of course, ignored the role of language in all this, but that’s another story! Anyway, thanks for getting a debate going.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. My problem with excess objectivity is less the objectivity and more the excess. What is in opposition is not emotion and reason but emotion and intellect. Reason is the tense balanced incorporation of both as equally necessary for wisdom.
      Your’s and other’s point about how other philosophers such as Hume and Spinoza (and I would add Kierkegaard) observed that our passions are integral to our reason is a good one. But my point here is that their ideas of emotional embrace haven’t endured in the culture. I don’t see them today in philosophy or the culture. Emotions are far more often denigrated and considered with suspicion in regards to knowledge in modern culture if not regarded as being in outright opposition to it (as evidenced by some of the commentary to this piece). Your example of “fake news” is a perfect example. Why do we attribute such things to emotion? Like all lies, is not fake news the strategic product of intellect trying to exert control over the world toward a willful end? The anger one feels at such untruth is in fact good and healthy. What would one be if one was not outraged by such things and the damage they sow in the collective?

      Like

  12. People are linear and goal oriented, while nature is cyclical, reciprocal and feedback generated.
    Consequently we tend to find the highest cliffs and march off them, rather than riding the waves up and down.
    Thoughts are like the crests of the wave. Clear, finished, complete and whole, but quickly receding. Emotions are like the waves building, incomplete, unsure, but potent.
    The turtle is still plodding along, long after the rabbit has died. We need to slow down and let nature catch up a little.

    Like

    1. I like the tortoise and the hare analogy. But what if we left the competitive paradigm behind? What if we rather told a story of how the tortoise and the hare befriended each other and worked together, bringing each of their own unique talents together in a whole to benefit their collective good and the good of the forest they live in? I wonder what how that story would end and what it’s moral would be?

      Like

      1. The reason nature is so diverse and dense is because there is no singular goal, program, language, culture, etc. Multicultural, not monocultural. Even predators only kill what they need, not insist the entire world is theirs to consume.
        People like to project out, without real consideration for the reactions being generated.
        Consider that as these mobile organisms, necessitating a sequential process of perception and having developed civilization out of narrative cultures, we experience time as the point of the present, moving past to future. The reality is that change turns future to past. Tomorrow becomes yesterday, because the earth turns.
        There is no literal dimension of time, because the past is consumed by the present, to inform and drive it. Causality and conservation of energy. Cause becomes effect.
        So the energy, as process, goes past to future, while the patterns generated go future to past. Energy drives the waves, while the fluctuations rise and fall. Lives go birth to death, while life moves onto the next generation, shedding the old.
        Consciousness goes past to future, while the perceptions, emotions and thoughts go future to past. Though it is the digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems processing the energy, while the central nervous system sorts and orders the information precipitating out. Thus this tendency to focus on the forms, than the processes creating them.
        The reality is more thermodynamic feedback loops generating this reality, than linear temporality. One wave doesn’t cause the next. Yesterday didn’t cause today. The sun shining on a spinning planet creates this cycle of days and nights. As the energy ebbing and flowing creates the waves.
        Yet our reality are these flashes of perception, the function of which is to enable us to navigate our situation. Since culture evolved out of story telling and the most powerful stories were the most repeated, we are fundamentally schooled to the idea that ends justify means, but there is only means. The ends are subjective interpretations of feedback loops, both positive and negative. Yet our culture sees it as a linear quest.
        More is not always better.
        Good and bad are not some cosmic conflict between righteousness and evil, but the basic biological binary of beneficial and detrimental. The 1/0 of sentience. Even bacteria get it. All the higher order evolved cultural constructs, love, honor, trust, respect, responsibility, etc, as well as the negatives, are the result of complex evolutionary processes. So when we try to frame morality and ethics in terms of desired outcomes, based on our particular ideals, it is somewhat analogous to trying to learn computer programming by playing video games.
        A spiritual absolute would be the essence of sentience, from which we rise, not an ideal of wisdom and judgement, from which we fell. The fact we are aware, than the details of which we are aware. When we conflate the ideal, which is aspirational, with the absolute, which is elemental, it does lead to that monoculture, where the Other becomes an affront to our own one true God.
        When good is considered aspirational, rather than elemental, conflicts do become a race to the bottom, of us, versus them, as all nuance and subjectivity is suspect.
        Both sides of the political dynamic, of organic social growth, versus civil and cultural formulation, see themselves on the road to nirvana and these going the other way as misbegotten fools. Rather than each effectively balancing the other, no matter how tribal it gets.
        Even galaxies are energy radiating out, as form coalesces in. Cosmic convection cycles.

        Like

  13. As others have suggested, the author downplays the extent to which past thinkers (I would single out Spinoza and Nietzsche) understood the power and priority of the emotions and had — for their respective times — quite an advanced understanding of how our minds actually work.

    Dan Kaufman wrote: “[T]he essay seems to me to swing too far … in the other direction. The Romanticism it seems to channel — while a wonderful development for the arts — has played a far worse role in our social and political life than the Enlightenment that preceded it.”

    You could debate how “wonderful” Romanticism was for the arts — though undeniably it was associated with many rich and interesting developments. But I totally agree that its social and political consequences were on the whole negative. (In fact, those ramifications continue to be felt today.)

    Like

    1. Excellent points regarding prior philosopher’s who have historically acknowledged the importance of emotions in our reason. But that’s not my point. My point is simply this – where is such an affective embrace today? I don’t see it. It has not historically taken hold. Emotions are far more denigrated and treated with suspicion from a cognitive perspective in our modern culture than intellect (as is evinced in some of the commentary offered regarding the piece). Thus my claim of modern hyper-intellectualization. I would recruit Hume and Spinoza in defense of the that point.

      Like

  14. “René Descartes’ epistemic struggles led to his project of doubt that ended with his seminal thought “I think therefore I am,” which conspicuously excludes feelings from among the self-evident truths defining our existence.”

    For Descartes, emotions are part of thought, so thinking does not exclude them. Indeed, he wrote an entire volume entitled “Passions of the Soul”, i.e., the mind, where he discusses the cognitive role and value of the emotions. The idea that Cartesian mind or thinking exludes the emotions is among the ‘stereotypes in circulation in the scientific world, especially in the English-speaking world’ (Denis Kambouchner, Descartes n’a pas dit […], Paris: Le Belles Lettres, p. 169).

    As for the the author’s thoughts about technology and dehumanisation, that is an old trope, but I think we should at least consider the possiblity that it is technology that makes us human – humans are the tools using animals, par excellence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paul,
      I think we should at least consider the possiblity that it is technology that makes us human – humans are the tools using animals, par excellence.

      Certainly we are tool using animals but for most of our evolution we were tool making animals. It is this intimate connection with hand crafting our tools that has the most strongly influenced us. And this is precisely what we have lost as technology has replaced craftmanship with factory mass production.

      Like

      1. Peter,

        There’s some work done by the paleobiologist Dan McShea, who has found that an evolutionary increase in societal complexity in highly social animals such as ants leads to loss of complexity in the individual ants themselves: “We have drawn attention to the fact that certain decreases are also expected to accompany these increases, in particular, the number of different functional capabilities of lower-level individuals – as reflected in numbers of parts, physiological capacities and distinct behaviours – is expected to decline. In sum, the suggestion is that as the complexity of the whole rises, the complexity of its components decreases” (from “Individual versus social complexity, with particular reference to ant colonies, Biological Review (2001).) He also speculates that, if this same trend can be said to occur in human societies, that perhaps some of these now dormant capacties may manifest themselves in other areas, such as intellectual or artistic speculation or creativity (in ‘Three Trends in the History of Life: An Evolutionary Syndrome’, Evolutionary Biology, 2016). In other words, as the individual capacity for handiwork and tool making and autonomy decreases with the increasing specialization and ‘machinification’ of society, certain kinds of otherwise ‘useless’ activities, such as artisitic and other kinds of creativity, may flourish as a channel for dormant individual capacities.

        So perhaps the trend you mention is a biological trend that affects humans as well as other kinds of social animals. Also, there may be trade-offs: less craftsmen, but more philosophers!

        Like

  15. Pierre Hadot had this to say (Philosophy As A Way Of Life)

    I have tried to define what philosophy was for a person in antiquity. In my view, the essential characteristic of the phenomenon “philosophy” in antiquity was that at that time a philosopher was, above all, someone who lived in a philosophical way. In other words, the philosopher was someone whose life was guided by his or her reason , and who was a practitioner of the moral virtues. This is obvious, for example, from the portrait Alcibiades gives of Socrates at the end of Plato’s Symposium. We can also observe it in Xenophon, where Hippias asks Socrates for a definition of justice. Socrates replies: “Instead of talking about it, I make it appear through my actions.” Originally, then, philosophy is above all the choice of a form of life, to which philosophical discourse then gives justifications and theoretical foundations. Philosophical discourse is not the same thing as philosophy: the Stoics said so explicitly, and the other schools admitted it implicitly. True, there can be no philosophy without some discourse – either inner or outward – on the part of the philosopher. This can take the form of pedagogical activity carried out on others, of inner meditation, or of the discursive explanation of intuitive contemplation. But this discourse is not the essential part of philosophy, and it will have value only if it has a relationship with philosophical life. As an Epicurean sentence puts it: “The discourse of philosophers is in vain, unless it heals some passion of the soul.”

    He strongly makes the point that philosophy is first and foremost a way of life and not a form of discourse about philosophy.

    The disease of philosophy today is that it has divorced itself from a philosophical way of life and become only an ever more detailed discourse about philosophy. He uses the example of a carpenter who produces hugely detailed theses about carpentry without actually making anything. Such a person is not a carpenter.

    He complains

    This tendency, which was already criticized in antiquity, has been said by Hadot to be “the perpetual danger of philosophy” – the philosopher is always tempted to take refuge in, to shut himself up in, the “reassuring universe of concepts and of discourse instead of going beyond discourse in order to take upon himself the risk of the radical transformation of himself.”

    To his great credit Massimo Pigliucci has recognized this and actively set about transforming himself according to Stoic precepts. I have the greatest admiration for him. But how many are there like him? The overwhelming majority think that talking about carpentry is a perfectly good substitute for the practice of carpentry.

    Such people talk themselves into irrelevance and therefore should not complain about becoming irrelevant.

    it may seem as though artists, in their creative activity, do nothing but apply rules, yet there is an immeasurable distance between artistic creation and the abstract theory of art. In philo­sophy, however, we are not dealing with the mere creation of a work of art: the goal is rather to transform ourselves. The act of living in a genuinely philosophical way thus corresponds to an order of reality totally different from that of philosophical discourse.

    This is the challenge that philosophy faces today if it wishes to regain relevance. The market for philosophical discourse is rapidly dwindling and may vanish entirely. But the need for philosophical practice is huge.

    In Stoicism, as in Epicureanism, philosophizing was a continuous act, permanent and identical with life itself, which had to be renewed at each instant. For both schools, this act could be defined as an orientation of the attention.

    There was a Socratic style of life (which the Cynics were to imitate), and the Socratic dialogue was an exercise which brought Socrates’ interlocutor to put himself in question, to take care of himself, and to make his soul as beautiful and wise as possible.

    Thus, as we have seen , philosophy in the Hellenistic and Greek period took on the form of a way of life, an art of living, and a way of being.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Logic is a basic part of craftsmanship. To bring a piece of rough lumber to the state of being true out of wynd you have to create a register. First you plane it flat (out of wynd/wind). That is your face. From your face you plane an perpendicular edge. Now you plane to width and from there you can thickness your stick. Here is fundamental rationality or moving from one clear and distinct condition to the next. Many philosophers have also been handy – Wittgenstein, Popper, Spinoza, Collingwood wrote on craft, Heidegger; I’m sure that roll could be expanded.

    Perhaps it was always the case that Pathos not Logos is the dominant factor in the political domain. Behind the scenes intellectuals with a Utopian vision plot according to an abstract rubric and urge the masses to tumult . The philosopher must find the aurea mediocritas without verging on Aristotelian snobbery. He held that a free man might play the flute but not too well.

    Like

  17. I think this is a finely written essay; but I must side with Dan and Mark English here.

    The single most profound problem with a ‘Romantic’ philosophy is that it offers the hope of mastery. If it ‘feels right,’ the logic can be found for it, which then provides us predictive control over our futures. That looks good; it is nonsense.

    I am a professed admirer of Hegel, widely recognized as one of the progenitors of Romantic philosophy, but here’s the catch. If we read Hegel *prescriptively,* he is not only frequently but perhaps entirely wrong. He only becomes interesting, indeed admirable, if we read him *descriptively*. The Dialectic is a pathology, perhaps the very pathology of Romanticism; it is a diagnosis, not a cure.

    All intellectual endeavors offer us explanations, that is the very reason we ensconce them in institutions of research and education. The function of philosophy is simply to provide an explanation of possible explanations, providing standards for judging their correctness and/or efficacy. If it is reduced now, it is because many fields of research have by now developed profoundly efficient languages of explanation no longer requiring external evaluation by philosophers (or even logicians).

    Philosophy in the broad sense can be useful, even therapeutic. But that’s what differentiates philosophy in the broad sense from the professionally developed lines of philosophy, be they Anglo-American or Continental. Neither logical analysis nor phenomenological analysis are intended therapeutically – nor should they be. Truth doesn’t care what we feel about it.

    And that in itself can be therapeutic – confronting the fact that reality doesn’t care what we feel. We then have choice how we behave in response to that. It may be the only real choice we have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Romanticism is not here posited as a therapeutic for the illness of rationality. Rather what is prescribed as healthy is a balance of mind between intellectual cognition and emotional cognition that is the requisite foundation of our reason and wisdom. But from the kind of hyper-intellectualized perspective that pervades modern philosophy and our culture, such a balanced state appears romantic since it looks toward the pole of pure passionate abandon and away from the pole of pure controlled rationality. Rather than polemics, what’s offered is something more wholistic. “Health” comes from the Old English hāl, “whole,” and to be healthy of mind we need to stop dividing our minds into pieces and pitting the parts against one another. Rather we need embrace all aspects of our mind and create a therapeutic peace between them in order to make ourselves, our philosophy, and our wisdom whole again.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Emotions exist to help us find what is good for us and avoid what is bad for us, and it is no different in philosophy. But what I find missing in much analytic philosophy is the imagination. Quine banished it in “On What There is” , announcing that he preferred “desert landscapes.” I recommend instead, Northrop Frye’s 1963 book “The Educated Imagination” Frye is a literary critic but he thinks like a philosopher and his writing is exceptionally clear. Here are a couple of quotes from that book to show you what I mean: “The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in.” and……”Nobody can enter a profession unless he makes at least a gesture recognizing the ideal existence of a world beyond his own interests: a world of health for the doctor, of justice for the lawyer, of peace for the social worker, a redeemed world for the clergyman, and so on.” and….”The society around us looks like the real world, but …there’s a great deal of illusions in it, the kind of illusions that propaganda and slanted news and prejudice and a great deal of advertising appeal to….there’s something in all of us that wants to drift toward a mob, where we can all say the same thing without having to think about it, because everybody is all alike except people we can hate or persecute. Every time we use words, we’re either fighting against this tendency or giving in to it. When we’re fighting against it, we’re taking the side of the genuine and permanent civilization.” For me philosophy is about fighting against that tendency to fall into illusion and taking the side of civilization against the counter-enlightenment.

    Like

      1. I agree that Quine is a great philosopher, and that “On What There is” is a great piece of philosophy. Quine was a brilliant writer and that’s the problem. His writing style belies his philosophical doctrines. His writing is imaginative and full of metaphors, but his version of logical positivism banishes the imagination from ontology and epistemology. The sterility of analytic philosophy post Quine is a direct result of this. You can’t just wish dualism away.

        Like

        1. Analytic philosophy post-Quine is hardly sterile. As for “banishing the imagination from ontology and epistemology,” you’d have to explain what that means, before I could even think about accepting it.

          Like

          1. In the sense of generating endless research programs that employ thousands of philosophers, eg. meta-ethics, and deflationary theories of truth, Analytic philosophy has been quite prolific. In the sense of generating anything that will stand the test of time – not so much. Analytic philosophy is basically a dead-end that for now is a major make-work project and employer for PHD’s and graduate students, a modern version of scholasticism, with very little to show for itself. Right now we are living in a world where disinformation in the hands of religious and political extremists is gaining the upper hand. For instance, almost half of Americans believe Trump’s claim that Biden got more votes because he cheated. These people watch Fox News and consider legitimate news organizations hopelessly biased. There is an epistemic crisis here where half of the population believes in an alternate reality. According to Rorty, we don’t really need the concept of “truth”, and according to deflationism, to say that a statement is true is simply a way of expressing your support for it. Meanwhile, Libertarian philosophers are worried about the red herring of “political correctness”. The only analytic philosopher out there who seems to be standing up for democracy is Jason Stanley.

            Like

          2. This is wrong in almost every respect and reflects a real ignorance of the analytic tradition since the Second World War. As for Jason Stanely, he is one of the worst of the contemporary Woke Brigade in philosophy. I recommend the devastating takedown of his book on fascism, written by Peter Ludlow.

            Oh, and your account of deflationary theories of truth is wrong too.

            Like

          3. Regarding post-Quinean analytic philosophy that most certainly has and will continue to “stand the test of time.”

            It should be noted that this list is just off the top of my head, thinking about it for about 5 minutes. But that’s more than enough to make the point.

            Books:

            Elizabeth Anscombe, Intention
            Nelson Goodman, Fact, Fiction, and Forecast
            Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking
            John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
            Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia
            Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue
            Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity
            Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language
            Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity
            Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?
            Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason
            Jerry Fodor, The Language of Thought
            David Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds
            Wilfrid Sellars, Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind
            Peter Singer, Practical Ethics
            Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness
            JL Mackie, Inventing Right and Wrong
            Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace

            Articles:

            Elizabeth Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy”
            Philippa Foot, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives”
            Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints”
            Donald Davidson, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes”
            Donald Davidson, “Radical Interpretation”
            Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”
            Edmund Gettier, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”
            Arthur Danto, “The Artworld”
            Hilary Putnam, “The Meaning of ‘Meaning”
            Jerry Fodor, “Special Sciences”
            John Searle, “Minds, Brains, and Programs”
            Hartry Field, “The Deflationary Theory of Truth”
            Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”
            Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”
            Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck”

            Anyway, you get the drift. Your characterization is not only false. It’s not really credible in the least.

            Like

          4. Thanks for the list. Sorry I haven’t read all of them. Interesting how many of these titles I have bought second-hand and found out on receiving them that they have been discarded by the College or University because no one had been reading them. Most of these titles with the exception of Nagel, Rawls, and Searle, are not even in print anymore.

            Like

          5. I generally don’t read analytic philosophy, but Bernard William is an exception. He’s very readable and worldly, in the best sense of the word. Still in print too.

            Like

  19. “…number of ills inflicted by our hyper-intellectualization…”: many people would regard this list as the fruits of under-intellectualism.

    Like

  20. Pierre Hadot makes this devastating conclusion

    Ancient philosophy proposed to mankind an art of living. By contrast, modern philosophy appears above all as the construction of a technical jargon reserved for specialists.

    This was “philosophers” talking to “philosophers” about philosophical discourse. It became endlessly recursive and ever more detailed to maintain the recursion. The onlooker is gobsmacked by arcane gobbledegook that has no visible relevance to the practice of life.

    So why are “philosophers” not living a philosophical life? Well it is a difficult and precarious undertaking that takes courage and invites personal criticism and the sneering cynicism of one’s peers, as Peter Singer discovered. It is a bit like standing in the auditorium dressed only in your underpants, something that most philosophers decidedly should not do. So instead they clothe themselves in dense layers of acadeimic papers. Such clothing cannot withstand the rigours of everyday life so you don’t see them in everyday life.

    DanK and others have, in several essays, drawn attention to the illness that is modern philosophy. It seemed as though they were merely throwing darts at a dartboard, an enjoyable if pointless diversion. They were describing the symptoms of the disease but neither its aetiology nor its treatment. Pierre Hadot does both with great clarity. He deserves close reading.

    What should one do about it?
    Hadot makes this delightful understatement

    “…Spiritual exercises.” The expression is a bit disconcerting for the contem­porary reader. In the first place, it is no longer quite fashionable these days to use the word “spiritual”

    Yup, that is for sure. Get over it and read Pierre Hadot. He will surprise you..

    Like

  21. To try to make clear what I mean I will illustrate with just one of the many paths philosophers can take when living a philosophical life. By way of background you should know that the Jesuit Order are the philosophers of the Catholic Church. Dan, I hope I have your permission to re-post this short article by the Director of Jesuit Missions, Paul Chitnis.

    “Anniversay of Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador.
    On 16 November 1989, six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her 15 year old daughter, were brutally murdered in El Salvador by soldiers of the US trained Atlacatl Battalion of the El Salvadoran army.

    Just a few weeks ago, 77 year old Inocente Orlando Montano, a former Salvadoran army colonel, was convicted of five of the murders and sentenced to 133 years in prison.

    Ignacio Ellacuría SJ, Ignacio Martín-Baró SJ, Segundo Montes SJ, Juan Ramón Moreno SJ, Joaquín López y López SJ, Amando López SJ, Elba and Celina Ramos were dragged from their beds that night and shot. The bodies of the Jesuits were mutilated and their blood seeped into the soil of the University of Central America campus where they lived and worked.

    I recall walking past their rooms, typical of so many Jesuit houses I have visited around the world, cluttered with books and clothes, but all utterly simple.

    I visited a small rural community in which one of the Jesuits, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez SJ, had ministered. The people spoke warmly of his gentleness and his presence among them sharing their joys and fears – an act of the presence of God.

    Each Jesuit was different from the other but they all represented a Church which stood with the poor and the oppressed. They visited people in their homes but also spoke out fearlessly in public against the repression and the atrocities which they experienced.

    As Jesuits, each would have undertaken the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius twice in their lives. Each would have prayed with St Ignatius “to imitate and be more like Christ our Lord… to choose poverty with Christ poor… and to desire to be a fool for Christ.”

    In their simplicity, fearlessness and foolishness, I find great holiness.”
    Paul Chitnis.

    Like

  22. I will check Ludlow’s book, thanks for the reference. The way I would put it re – Quine, is that “On What There is” prematurely banished dualism. Quine wanted to get rid of the ontological clutter that dualism seemed to generate, eg. imaginary mountains, intentions, and meanings. He creates a logical atomist model that legislates the imagination out of existence. It’s mathematical logic on one side describing physical reality on the other. And it’s very convincing because of the way that it seems to sweep out all the bad metaphysical assumptions in one fell swoop. But it is a mistake because it leaves out the imagination and the imagination is necessary for ethics and epistemology. It’s obvious that this leads to a dead end if you look at Quine’s “Naturalized Epistemology” the beginnings of a research project that went nowhere because it completely ignores the fact that human behaviour has to be interpreted. “Interpretation” “Truth” “Good” “Knowledge” all central philosophical concepts that cannot get off the ground without our imagination. As Frye points out, we build the world we want by applying our imagination to the world we live in.

    Like

  23. But it is a mistake because it leaves out the imagination and the imagination is necessary for ethics and epistemology.

    Agreed. We are time travelling animals. We alone in the animal world can travel back in time to consult our episodic memories. We alone in the animal world can travel forward in time to imagine the future. It turns out that this ability to imagine the future is utterly transformative. We can imagine future states, objects and events. And because we can imagine them we bend our energies to realising them. And the world slowly becomes a better place. It does so because we are intrinsically drawn to a future of greater goodness, truth and beauty that we value in our imagination. We can even imagine what is not or cannot be and be infused with awe and sustained by hope.

    We have been defined as tool using animals, or more cynically, as weapon using animals, all of which is true. But that does not get to the heart of what we really are. We are creative, imaginative animals and this truly defines us. Creative imagination frees us from the iron prison of rigid determinism, giving us true free will and this has liberated us. It is a miracle but because we live with it daily the miraculous is clothed in banal normality.

    Like

    1. “Emotions exist to help us find what is good for us and avoid what is bad for us, and it is no different in philosophy.”
      “Regarding post-Quinean analytic philosophy, that most certainly has and will continue to “stand the test of time.”
      “We alone in the animal world can travel forward in time to imagine the future. It turns out that this ability to imagine the future is utterly transformative.”
      “Intellectual dominion hasn’t remained confined within our minds but has flowed out to dominate our culture.”

      Perhaps in all of that is a grand synthesis. What we create in our world first happens in our minds. If we are collectively ill of mind then we imagine and construct a disordered world. If we are whole and healthy of mind, we imagine and create a healthy world for ourselves. What constitutes a whole and healthy world of mind? Is that not what all of philosophy tries to answer?
      I would offer this – that such a world is founded on knowledge. Knowledge of the workings of our world is analytically generated exclusively from our willful intellect and thus informs us our ability to be in control. Knowledge of value in our world, of gain and loss, is intuitively generated exclusively from our spontaneous emotions and thus informs us of our lack of control. The threshold between these two is a metacognitive threshold between the controlled and the uncontrolled within our minds. This is a tense conflicted border between the conscious supraliminal self and the subconscious subliminal self. It is in this conflicted borderland between the domesticated and the wild within us that the agent of self must choose. To be thoroughly informed in such choices requires knowledge from each of these spheres in balance. Wisdom incorporates both equally in order to make the choices necessary to not only be healthy of mind but to go on and create a healthy world. For that created world to be whole and healthy, it will of necessity need to construct a healthy balance between the controlled and the uncontrolled, between the civilized world and natural world. And is that not the essential global crisis we are all collectively facing today on our fragile planet in this modern era?
      It is here that I believe medicine has a voice, I ardently think it can offer wisdom from out of its own inherent struggle between the controlled and the uncontrolled, between health and illness, between life and death.

      Like

  24. “Knowledge of the workings of our world is analytically generated exclusively from our willful intellect and thus informs us our ability to be in control. Knowledge of value in our world, of gain and loss, is intuitively generated exclusively from our spontaneous emotions and thus informs us of our lack of control.” – In fact, I don’t think that you can at all separate intellect and evaluations, or intellect and emotions. Of course we do separate them conceptually, but in practice? Take medicine: why do we pursue knowledge of disease processes and healthy responses to diseases? We value health and healing and this directs inquiry. It is not for the sake of knowledge itself nor for “control”. Control is a byproduct of knowledge and values.

    Like

    1. On second thought, you’re right, knowledge is about control in the sense that all inquiry has to do with solving problems. If you haven’t already, you would profit from reading John Dewey, eg. The Quest For Certainty, Knowing and the Known, and The Public and its Problems, etc.

      Like

          1. Pursuing matters of interest is problem-solving – one is satisfying one’s need to know more about a subject. The more one is involved in the subject the more true this is. “Even painters speak of solving a problem, and the writer’s work is a quest following an endless succession of literary problems.” – Michael Polanyi. I’m not hunting snarks, I believe pursuing knowledge is always problem solving, because it’s always part of personal commitment. Pure contemplation, inquiry for it’s own sake, would be totally useless, hence “navel gazing”

            Like

          2. “Pursuing matters of interest is problem-solving.”

            No it isn’t.

            “Pure contemplation, inquiry for it’s own sake, would be totally useless.”

            No it wouldn’t/isn’t.

            Like

          3. What’s wrong with things being “useless”? Beethoven’s 5th symphony is useless, so is all great art.

            Like

          4. I think I see the idea of what is a problem from a wider perspective. An artist, or musician, or scientist, or philosopher all find themselves involved in cultures and traditions that existed before they came along. Any new works are created out of this material, and the form creation takes is in essence a problem-solving process, in the sense of “how do I work with this material?” and “What do I do now that I’ve done X or Y?” When Beethoven wrote a symphony he had the raw materials in his mind – the instrumentation, the time signature, the classical and romantic forms and tonal structure, the folk melodies, and to put it all together is like solving a problem, and to follow sonata form in each case is to solve a problem – how to make a new form out of these materials. I see this as the same for all types of creation – writing, music, and the visual arts. You are solving the problem of how to take the raw materials and create something new.

            Like

  25. Actually, I would zero in on Dewey’s, Reconstruction in Philosophy, which directly deals with the the problems that you are talking about.

    Like

      1. I would also recommend anything by Michael Polanyi as his theory of knowledge is a fine example of the integration of knowledge and value. Ex. – “The Study of Man”, which is easy to find used.

        Like

  26. Just wanted to slip in a last word re – “problem-solving” “The sense of a pre-existent task makes the shaping of knowledge a responsible act, free from subjective predilections. And it endows, by the same token, the results of such acts with a claim to universal validity.” – Michael Polanyi, The Study of Man. (Note that he’s not saying it makes it universally valid, he’s saying it endows it with a claim to such.) Creation is never just for creation’s sake, it’s always in service of a greater purpose. That purpose may not be explicitly understood or articulated, but it still is there.

    Like

    1. I think this is wrong. Demonstrably, as I’ve created and investigated on numerous occasions without “greater purpose.” Indeed that’s how Inwould characterize most of my creative and intellectual efforts.

      Like

      1. Youre a Philosophy professor, and you’ve created and investigated. The two are connected – there’s your greater purpose.

        Like

      2. Why then do you do philosophy? That might be the subject of another post in the Electric Agora.

        I do it, insofar as I do it, because it’s fun, because it’s beautiful, because it’s intellectually stimulating, because it’s a lot more entertaining than watching sports or following politics. I do it because I like doing it, tout court.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Because we need to understand what is going on, and having understood, we need to decide how we should conduct ourselves. Understanding and conduct are inextricably linked(or they should be). The illness of philosophy is that it has sliced and diced understanding until its link with reality is tenuous and it has broken the link with conduct. Unsurprisingly it is becoming irrelevant.

          Like

          1. Peter Smith,

            I agree more with your first answer about the “deep inner drive”. I’m not claiming to be super creative, but my fumbling attempts at philosophy stems from that “deep inner drive”.

            Like

        2. I don’t think I have a single answer for this or that there is a single reason.

          About halfway into college, I changed my major from history/political science to history/philosophy. I also took almost enough literature classes to triple Major, with Lit added. I decided not to become a lawyer but a professor instead.

          I could have gone either way: philosophy or history. I chose philosophy, because it involved a lot less by way of memorization, which I am not very good with. If I was to go back and do it all again, I might very well have chosen Literature.

          My reason for wanting to be a professor was primarily one of lifestyle and environment. I loved the University environment and I loved the calendar/time-flexibility of academic life.

          In terms of creative activity and inquiry, with regard to the first, philosophy is only one of the things I do. I also write quite a bit of fiction. A novel, a novella, and a slew of short stories. With regard to the second — inquiry — philosophy is just *one* discipline I bring to bear when engaged in it.

          My motivations are complex, but primarily have to do with self-satisfaction. I find creating — and wordsmithing in particular — very satisfying. I just enjoy the *sound* of a great sentence.

          I don’t think that most of the question of philosophy have determinate answers. Indeed, I think virtually all of them — at least the major ones — suffer from radical indeterminacy.

          What I appreciate in philosophy is its toolset, primarily linguistic, logical, and conceptual analysis. Taken alone, however, its toolset is not sufficient to address any subject of real depth and complexity; especially with regard to human life and activity. Indeed, I don’t think any disciplinary toolset is. To really address matters of human concern in any sort of serious way requires substantial experience and wisdom, an intact, functional personality, and a substantial capacity for quality expression.

          In this I break with many of my colleagues and especially, with Massimo. I neither believe that philosophy provides us with anything near an adequate toolset/conceptual resources to address the most serious of human questions, nor do I think most philosophers are the sorts of people from whom wisdom concerning human affairs is likely to be found.

          I also, however, am quite skeptical of the significance — or even the real interest — in a lot of the allegedly “big questions.” Much more of what is significant and true of us is to be found in the everyday and mundane than in the big things.

          Like

          1. That is a really interesting reply which nicely describes your motivation. And of course we are all motivated differently.
            I find creating — and wordsmithing in particular — very satisfying. I just enjoy the *sound* of a great sentence.
            Yes, it should be euphonious. It is a kind of poetry and poetry invokes deep intuitions and emotions.

            In this I break with many of my colleagues and especially, with Massimo. I neither believe that philosophy provides us with anything near an adequate toolset/conceptual resources to address the most serious of human questions, nor do I think most philosophers are the sorts of people from whom wisdom concerning human affairs is likely to be found.

            Pierre Hadot, and many philosophers from the Hellenic tradition would disagree with you. Massimo would strongly disagree with you. But that’s OK. A good disagreement is a fertile source of understanding.

            More interesting to me is how two intelligent and well trained philosophers can reach such very different conclusions. The proper reaction to that should be a suitable degree of epistemic humility, an acknowledgement that others could be right and that oneself could be wrong. But I seldom see such epistemic humility.

            Like

          2. Taken alone, however, its toolset is not sufficient to address any subject of real depth and complexity; especially with regard to human life and activity.

            This is why Stoics place such a large emphasis on the development of wisdom.

            Like

    2. Charles, the problem with your line of reasoning is that most people experience creativity as a deep, inner drive. We feel the need, look for a suitable means to express it, supply a suitable rationale and then set about solving any practical problems that hinder the realisation of the creative urge. Purpose and problem solving may the outcome of expressing this creative urge but they do not define it.

      Like

  27. Really great article. I loved your account of your journey.
    The classic view that puts reason on a pedestal and defines us solely in terms of it is problematic. It forces us to neglect much of what it is to be a person.
    Note: the existentialists challenged this “classic” view. Nietzsche identified nihilism as the most serious problem of the contemporary world. His philosophy, however, does not end there. It is also positive and life affirming, addressing the same issues you identify.
    I recommend taking a look at existentialism. You will find interesting philosophies that touch on issues you identify.
    I do agree. I love philosophy and think it (the humanities in general) should play a larger role in life/culture. We can learn a lot from philosophy that can help us heal.

    Like

  28. I know that’s what they claim. But I find them — and their orientation — distinctly unwise in a number of crucial senses.

    Pierre Hadot was a really good classical scholar and he placed great emphasis on understanding classical writings in their context. It sounds kind of obvious but few people make that effort and fall into the lazy trap of viewing the past through the prism of the present.

    As Carlin Barton has written, the adoption of Stoic practices was a very specific outcome of the enormous and deadly internal conflicts of Rome, when Rome made the transition from Republic to Empire.

    But what has that got to do with the present? My reading of this is that we also are facing a deeply threatening transition with the added complexity that we don’t know the destination of this transition(the Romans probably did not either). As a result we are experiencing increasing instability and stress. This requires adaptive behaviour. I see the revival of neo-Stoicism as a form of adaptive behaviour well suited to guiding and sustaining one through the stormy seas of this transition.

    You and I come from a time of self indulgent surfeit with few threats. The future will not look like this. The danger is that the past will blind us to the needs of the future so that we adapt slowly and too late. Resilience, hardiness, persistence, determination and a willingness to endure suffering will be asked of us. Ask the poorer people of America. They already know this.

    You might think that their(the Stoics) orientation is “distinctly unwise in a number of crucial senses” but that, I maintain, is because you are viewing the future through the prism of the past. The orientation of the Stoics might in fact be the best response to a deeply threatening future.

    Like

    1. I don’t agree with your characterization of the times from which we come. I also don’t agree with your view of the future. Regardless, I’ve written quite a bit about what I dislike about Stoicism, so no need to repeat it here. Massimo and I traded dueling essays *and* did a 90 minute or so dialogue on it. My feelings about it remain unchanged.

      Like

  29. I don’t agree with your characterization of the times from which we come.
    I certainly enjoyed the fruits of self indulgent surfeit. Was your experience so different? You have said enough about your past to make me think it was not different.

    I also don’t agree with your view of the future
    America is on its way to becoming a vassal state of China, destined to consume and pay for the output of China’s factories. It will be hard future as the Chinese are unpleasant masters with a lot of grudges to work off. China’s vast industrial output will be turned into a vast military output that will be directed against us because of our utterly stupid foreign policy. Russia will happily be aiding and abetting China because we did our utmost to make the Russians our enemies.

    Longer term, as national economies equalize, the world will have to settle for zero growth which is the natural outcome of equalized economies and collapsing demographics. Zero growth is a wrenching change in attitude because it means you are stuck with what you were born with, just as in the Middle Ages. Zero growth means zero opportunities and zero progression through life. For hundreds of years we have lived with high levels of growth, growing wealth and growing opportunity, and this assumption is built into our psyche. Abandoning this assumption will be an impossibly painful task and we will need tools such as Stoicism to enable us to adapt.

    Like

    1. I’m afraid I don’t agree with any of this.

      As for the times from which we come, they were much tougher and far more dangerous than the times facing people living in modern, developed nations today. Indeed, I don’t think it’s even close.

      Like

  30. I’m afraid I don’t agree with any of this.

    Yes, but you need to motivate your disagreement, otherwise we are reduced to trading bald contradictions, hardly the sort of things philosopher(s) should be doing. No, scrap the plural, I am an unPhilosopher so that gives me more leeway in trading contradictions 🙂

    Good night and thanks for the conversation.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s