APP Editors’ Prefatory Note:
In “Philosophy Unbound,” we resolved to publish original works of real philosophy freed from the constraints of professional academic philosophy, come hell or high water.
Our first project flowing from that philosophy unbound resolution is the five-part, four-book series, The Rational Human Condition, which, starting on 3 July 2017, is being published by us here and on Medium, section-by-section, in weekly installments appearing on successive Mondays. The first installment of that is here.
The second project flowing from that same resolution is Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, which, starting on 28 July 2017, is hereby being published by us on APP and on Medium, in fourteen weekly installments appearing on successive Fridays.
Its author is Mark Anderson, who is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Belmont University in Nashville, TN.
In both cases of The Rational Human Condition and Thinking Life, we’ve updated the 19th century mode of serializing novels and other literary works in hard copy, to works of real philosophy and the free-access internet.
Thinking Life will be of authentic, serious interest to all those who believe that real philosophy in general, and more specifically Plato and Nietzsche, are still worth thinking about, and simultaneously to all those who are either overtly or secretly APP.
After we’ve published all of Thinking Life, it will be deleted and later appear in paperback.
THINKING LIFE: A PHILOSOPHICAL FICTION
BY MARK ANDERSON
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. On the Decline of Our Educational Institutions
2. We Scholars
3. Divine Madness
4. Hard Fate and Black Bile
5. The Wanderer and His Shadow
6. The Art of Philosophy
CHAPTER 6. THE ART OF PHILOSOPHY
My friend and I met three more times following our first acquaintance. I returned to the mountains to visit him each of the next two summers, then once again the summer after the war began. (I never returned to the sanatorium except to walk the magnificent grounds.) By the second year of hostilities travel became so inconvenient, and at times so dangerous, as to be practically impossible. For years thereafter we maintained contact exclusively through the post. Until last summer, when finally I returned to the mountains to meet him again in person.
As I have mentioned in passing already, over the course of the intervening years I had thought my way into a novel manner and mode of philosophy. The events and ideas recorded in the 15 October letter reproduced in the previous chapter represent my first authentic insight into these matters. My friend had assessed me correctly: I didn’t want to be a scholar who practices his craft on works of philosophy composed by other men. I aspired to be a philosopher myself. An authentic lover of wisdom. My scholarly training could aid me in this, for a philosopher requires a solid base of knowledge on which to build. But his distinctive activity does not consist of piling additional layers of information atop the existing structure. The typical scholar produces (I don’t say that he “writes”) articles and monographs. The philosopher blends acquired knowledge with elements of his own creativity to produce intellectual and existential works of art. Philosophy manifests in his mind, under his pen, and in and through his life.
Philosophy as a way of life. One encounters this phrase from time to time in commentaries on the ancients. The Hellenic schools of philosophy promulgated doctrine, but never as pure abstract theory dissociated from life. To join a school was to commit oneself to a particular manner of being in the world. One recognized a man as a follower of, say, Diogenes the Cynic from his bearing, his conduct, even his amusements and his clothes. Here we might employ a word of recent coinage and remark that each of the ancient schools advocated a “lifestyle.” And the commitment was all-encompassing, for it engaged one’s spiritual, intellectual, and ethical ideals.
The Platonists sought likeness to God through purification, the withdrawal of soul from bodily distractions and desires; the Peripatetics sought eudaimonia through cultivating the moral and intellectual virtues; the Epicureans sought ataraxia through the proper understanding of nature, the gods, life and death, and activities generative of simple refined pleasure. One could go on. Each of the schools posited a telos, an aim or end of human life conceived as the ultimate good, and they prescribed a method for attaining it. In one way or another the method entailed living by a specific canon of virtues. One flourishes by living virtuously. This is the idea. Thus when today we think of philosophy as a way of life, we tend to conceive of the “way” as having primarily to do with ethics or morality. The philosopher is committed to certain theoretical principles regarding reality and man, but even more than this he is committed to a virtuous life.
Now this conception of the philosophical life as primarily an ethical concern is valuable as far as it goes, I’m sure. But it does not go far enough.
I have often heard my friend complain that theories of aesthetics analyze beauty exclusively from the perspective of the viewer of a work of art, never from the perspective of the artist. Schopenhauer for example regards the experience of beauty as inducing in the viewer a state of calm detachment from the ceaseless striving of the will. He transcends phenomenal suffering, the wheel of Ixion stands still, and he contemplates pure Form as a pure subject of knowledge. How different a state from the inspired frenzy of the artist! The artist is involved with beauty as one who labors to seduce, conceive, and give birth. He evokes beauty from the void, or rather he extracts it from his entrails. He loves, he dreams, he rages and despairs; he rushes about in a fever; he is madly enthused, then exhausted; he collapses; he slogs, he sweats, he is active. The viewer on the other hand is passive. He receives the work as a gift he has done nothing to deserve, and which perhaps he does not merit. He stands before it and admires; he contemplates it at his leisure. But does he comprehend it? Does he realize there is substance here to comprehend? That the work might well demand something of him? Not necessarily. Adrift in the peace which the work induces in his soul, he experiences nothing of the fire in which it was forged.
How then could one’s conception of beauty not differ according to the perspective from which one regards it? “You must change your life,” says the poet. But this sentiment stirs the man inspired to write it more profoundly than it moves the man who reads it. The former sings out with passion, the latter may only nod and blink his eyes, then return to his routine.
Our conception of philosophy as a way of life similarly approaches its object from the wrong direction. We may regard the philosophical life from the perspective of the student, the scholar, or the disciple, and there are no doubt advantages to doing so. But this parallels the approach to beauty solely from the perspective of the spectator, and it suffers from similar limitations. Surely there is greater value in conceptualizing philosophy from the perspective of the founder of a school of thought, from the perspective of the philosophical artist. If not for the aspiring academic, then at least for the aspiring philosopher. My friend once said to me, “I don’t want to be a Platonist. I want to be a Plato.” And with this remark he crystalized the distinction I am after here. The difference between regarding philosophy from the perspective of the scholar or disciple—the “spectator”—and from the perspective of the founder of a school of thought—the “artist”—is the difference between learning how to be a Platonist and learning how to be a Plato.
Framing the matter this way makes sense of my friend’s drive to track the traces of Plato the man imprinted on the texts of Platonic doctrine. There are those who turn to philosophy for guidance in the affairs of life. They require theories to accept, maxims to obey. They stand as students to the philosopher as professor, or as disciples to a guru. They require dogmatic content, therefore they treasure the text. But there are others who aspire to be philosophers themselves, not as followers, but rather as creators, as thinkers and writers, poets and legislators. Therefore they appreciate insight into the man, the philosopher behind the text, from whom they can learn what it means—and what it takes—to become themselves an example of the type. And here we have the distinction between the devotee of philosophical doctrine and the philosopher as architect of a thought-world, which is to say the philosopher as a thinker-artist, to employ my friend’s evocative expression.
Let us therefore regard the notion of philosophy as a way of life as bound up not, or not exclusively, with the choice between virtue and vice, but rather with the choice between a predominately scholarly and a predominately creative life. The philosopher studies philosophical texts, to be sure, but not for the sake of mastering doctrine through objective analysis and precise interpretation. Rather he learns through study to think for himself. He reads the relevant scholarship, the more serious, rigorous, and pedantic the better, for the philosopher must be a “knower”; but he thinks, writes, and lives art, for above all else the philosopher is a creator. In short, the philosopher employs ideas and texts as stepping stones which lead to the core of his own unique spirit, and thereby to the conception of his own ideas and texts. The man who really lives philosophy, then, does not just live virtuously (he does this too, of course, though perhaps not in the conventional sense). He lives and acts in devotion to the Muses of his creative intellectuality; he makes of his soul a shrine to the deities of depth and beauty.
This, then, is the conception of philosophy as a way of life to which I attained some time ago. And for the past few years I have endeavored to live it out. Unfortunately, the busywork of a professor’s routine constantly interferes. As an academic one must keep abreast of every development in one’s field, no matter how ephemeral; one must contribute regularly to the ever-accumulating store of scholarship; one must publish in the appropriate journals and lecture at prestigious conferences. And of course one must do all this while keeping up one’s teaching duties, regardless whether one’s classes relate to one’s interests at any particular time. In brief, the business of working as a professor tends to obstruct one’s every effort to live as a philosopher.
This sad fact would be the case even in the best of circumstances. But the farce into which my university has recently devolved has aggravated my particular problems. I have mentioned the extraneous busy-work imposed on faculty and staff by our administrative overlords. And I have reported my enraged reaction to it. Fortunately, despite numerous implied threats of retaliation, I suffered no serious repercussions. Perhaps a decline in the esteem and trust of my superiors, but considering their misplaced priorities, I took this as a compliment. This is not to say, however, that conditions in the institution improved. To the contrary, university administrators have carried on with their various asininities, have compounded them to the point of parody.
In the immediate aftermath of the events recounted in the first chapter of this book, Senior Administration determined, in secret consultation with the Board, formally to implement unprecedented changes to the structure and curriculum of the university. This despite the fact that official regulations unambiguously decree that any such decision be approved by the University Council gathered in assembly. But money-men besotted with power often feel at liberty to ignore inconvenient regulations, and usually they act with impunity. They certainly succeeded on this occasion. Therefore it was promulgated as official university policy that the College of Liberal Arts, traditionally the heart of the institution, would henceforth function primarily as instructional support to the faculties of Law and Medicine, and to various of the natural sciences with military or commercial applications. Of course they took particular care not to express themselves as candidly as I have just done; rather they resorted to the standard bureaucratic half-truths and circumlocutions. But their intentions were evident nonetheless. To cite just one telling example, the core of required course distributions was radically restructured, so that the general student body would engage much less than previously with literature, history, and foreign languages, and in some cases not at all. In short, the university was now officially committed to catering to students who regard education exclusively as a mode of professional training.
I have called our administrators philistines. Did you think I was exaggerating?
This situation exacerbated the frustration and animus that seethed in me against the university’s senior executives. The public collapse of the school’s intellectual integrity, combined with my yearning to live unimpededly as a philosopher, daily intensified my desire to retire and withdraw into the mountains. Fortunately the summer holidays were nearly upon us, at which time I could put these pressures out of mind and revisit the atmosphere in which I felt most at home.
I arrived in the mountains near the middle of June, not long after the late spring snows had melted away for good, and the meadows began to bloom with life. Vibrant yellow flowers flourished everywhere, radiant and fragrant. I took a room in an old but comfortable hotel, and since I arrived in the early afternoon, after unpacking I left for a walk around the lake. I did not expect to encounter my friend, for we had not coordinated our arrival dates exactly, but I looked for him all the same. And with thoughts of the man’s regal-whimsical personality revolving in my mind, I reflected on the differences between our ways of life, he the free-spirited philosopher-artist, I still fixed from day to day discontentedly enacting the role of philosophy professor.
I thought: one does well to compare the philosopher to the artist, to the poet, the painter, the musician. Otherwise one’s only living exemplars of the type are academic scholastics and under-laborers of the sciences. But the philosopher is not an analyst, an accountant or technologist of ideas. His home is not the journal article. His aspiration is not promotion. Yet I fear that this is the end to which we are heading, or rather rushing, impetuously, recklessly. Having migrated to the university, and having begun thereby to mistake ourselves for members of a “profession,” we philosophers are apparently eager to make ourselves over into specialists, micro-specialists even, captive to rigid and parochial modes of thought and action. We philosophers today are in the process of becoming not just professors, which is bad enough, but professionals, which is worse.
None of this is to suggest that the philosopher should altogether neglect scholarship and science. The philosopher as a thinker-artist is more than simply an artist. He is a man of “knowledge,” as I have said, even if he is not primarily a seeker of knowledge. Lacking expertise he would be but a dilettante or, worse, a charlatan, akin to a painter passing off a blank canvas for a meditation on the void. No, the philosopher is driven—he drives himself—to grind out the hard work. To endure it and enjoy it. His intellectual conscience bites deep. But his creative spirit is a match in power. Free play with the product of his labor is reward for force expended.
Let’s say then that the lover of wisdom is an artist whose medium is the idea expressed in words, and whose subject matter is resident in the traditional canon of philosophy. This includes of course the questioning and reevaluation of the canon. I am tempted to maintain that the philosopher is one for whom the nature of philosophy, and his own activities as a philosopher, are of paramount concern; that he himself is the primary object of his inquiry, including himself as inquirer, and therefore including even the terms of his inquiry; and that as a consequence he is constantly in danger of losing himself in a self-referential infinite regress of questions and replies, yet at every moment he centrifugally resists collapse into the singularity. In sum, that as a philosopher a man just is this constant play of instability and recovery of balance. In the best of cases the result resembles a dance.
My second day in the mountains I still did not encounter my friend. I walked our favorite paths, circled the lake in the morning and again that afternoon, but to no avail. Early in the evening I sat to observe the sunset from his favorite bench. Sparrows darted excitedly over the meadows, climbing, diving, feeding on tiny insects. The wildflowers bowed and huddled together against the chill approach of night. The waters of the lake darkened and lay solemnly still. And with the overlooming mountains conjuring thoughts of altitude and ascent, I reflected glumly on my own stagnation on the horizontal planes of life. Then once again I thought of the artist, the man for whom advancement and ascension are perpetual inspirations.
The true artist flows like Becoming personified, for he thrives as who and what he is through ceaseless displacement and change. Not by chance, but intentionally, for stasis is the eternal foe of every creative spirit. Call it a propensity to boredom if you will, but the greatest artists are the boldest revolutionaries, forever overthrowing their own ideals, even their own inclinations and drives. They experiment with methods, techniques, and styles; they explore themselves; they master their craft. Then suddenly, remarkably, they change direction, sometimes to the horror of their admirers, to the horror even of that part of themselves that feels settled and at ease. Something within the artist senses that settled ease is the death of creativity, the cessation of all accomplishment. In logical terms we might call the artist’s tendency to revolution a form of “inconsistency.” Well then, so much the worse for logic and consistency!
Now why should philosophers deny themselves the pleasure of ascent and the joy of creative intellectual revolution? Fear of violating disciplinary boundaries? Fear of the bogeyman of validity? Is the philosopher then a coward? Let’s say that the typical philosopher is a slave to reason. He regards it as his business, his professional academic concern, to formulate arguments or theories to defend against all rivals. He lavishes his theories with greater care than he gives to himself. The truth is more valuable than the man, he says. He is a “truth-seeker.” Wherefore? And if I myself am the man whose value is at issue? No, no. I say: to the devil with this pious reverence for consistency and objectivity, as if logic were truth and truth were divine. Life itself is the highest value of a living organism—in my own case, my life, and the truth be damned.
On my deathbed I shall give no thought to whether any of my pet ideas have been proven finally and irrefutably true. I shall want to review my past and affirm with confidence that mine was a rich, rowdy, expansive, profound, joyful, intellectually creative life. And I hope that with my final breath I shall pronounce an exuberant Yes! to life, to my life. To my ideas, too, of course; but not primarily to their “truth-value.” Rather to their beauty, to the grace of their companionship, to the favor of their arrival and even of their leave-taking. I do not dismiss the truth as altogether without value, for the artist dips his brush in every color as it suits his mood. The philosopher-artist too. Yet I shall always subordinate truth to life, never my life to truth. For my ultimate aim is neither correspondence nor confirmation, but experience, adventure, growth, ascent. Really, I just want to feel alive.
Consider these matters in the context of pure art. The Impressionists did nothing to prove the validity of their vision. Monet provided no argument for the soundness of his water lilies, nor did Pissarro expose fallacies in proposed refutations of his haystacks. Artistic revolutions do not hinge on proof. Rather, the Impressionists gave their peers permission to explore new modes of perception and novel techniques of painting. They sanctioned the insurrection by their very act of rebelling.
Similarly, the philosopher as revolutionary does not require proof—as if any man has ever strictly proven anything of interest in this world. At most the philosopher requires permission, the sanction to follow his Muse no matter its eccentric deviations from tradition, the follies intermingled with its seriousness. And as among the artists, the highest manifestation of the type philosopher, the creator as opposed to the follower, will provide his own sanction. Will be his own sanction. His permission is his boldness, his recklessness even, for the tradition he most opposes resides within. He takes up arms against himself to serve himself; reverberations manifesting in the external world are after-shocks of this central act. He himself—heart and mind—is his masterpiece, never complete yet fulfilled at every moment.
Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here. Please consider becoming a patron! We’re improvident, but cheerful.