Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction, Part 13—The Art of Philosophy, Section 2.

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

Editor’s Introduction                                                                                      

1. On the Decline of Our Educational Institutions

Section 1

Section 2

2. We Scholars                         

Section 1

Section 2

3. Divine Madness                          

Section 1

Section 2

4. Hard Fate and Black Bile

Section 1

Section 2

5. The Wanderer and His Shadow

Section 1

Section 2

6. The Art of Philosophy

Section 1

Section 2

Epilogue

***        

The Next Installment

***                                                                         

CHAPTER 6. THE ART OF PHILOSOPHY

Section 2

Days passed and still my friend did not turn up. I must say I began to worry. I wrote his associate in Basel but received no reply. Had I known where he stayed when in town I would have made inquiries there, but he took a different room with every visit. The particularities of his personality were such that he was forever on the hunt for the ideal residence, a house or hotel superior to the one he’d selected the previous summer, a less expensive place with a warmer room, or with higher ceilings, with larger windows or a balcony, or quieter—silence was essential—a bright, quiet room with a comfortable chair and a desk for writing.

“Well,” I told myself, “I’ve reserved my room for two full months. He will arrive before I leave.” I expected him any day. In the meantime, I went out of my way to modify my usual patterns of thought and action. I eschewed professional work and passed my time outdoors, walking, thinking, exercising my imagination. I composed songs and poems then immediately forgot them; I wrote essays in experimental styles; I indulged my daydreams. All with an eye toward freeing myself from encrusted scholarly habits. Eventually I settled down to compose a short work of intellectual autobiography which centered on my relationship with Plato, part fact, part fantasy, a philosophical fever-dream recorded as a prose-poem. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t meant to be. The point was that it was different, exploratory, liberating. It was valuable as therapy, as a reorienting rehabilitation.

For these and other creative-intellectual experiments I drew inspiration from Plato’s Phaedo, which I read afternoons on my friend’s bench in the meadow before the lake. In the past I had concentrated exclusively on the dialogue’s logoi, evaluating the arguments for immortality, analyzing the concluding account of the forms as causes. Now following my friend’s example I ignored these matters and experienced the piece as a complex work of art, as a mountain of a mythos. What a strange and beautiful artifact! Strict Platonic dogma on the surface, Plato the playful thinker-artist winkingly peeking out from behind the scenes. Imagine an academic today composing a treatise on the soul which included so much apparently superfluous material, allusions to the Minotaur and Dionysus, Apollonian themes of harmony and the prophetic songs of dying swans, a detailed description of the afterworld and the “true earth,” repeated intimations that the arguments are unsound or incomplete. No respectable press would publish such a work. What’s the genre? Who’s the audience? What exactly is the point? I can only infer that for Plato the arguments were not the point, or anyway not the central point.

Plato understood the limitations of argument. He proved it time and again in his so-called aporetic dialogues, representations of dialectical exchanges which end without resolution. Even his great dialogue on knowledge—the Theaetetus, also included in the volume of the Platonis Dialogi which my friend had often with him—concludes with the stalemate of aporia. The interlocutors cannot define knowledge, much less provide an account of the proper method of attaining it.

Plato’s Academy became officially a skeptical institution less than a century after the master’s death when Arcesilaus was elected scholarch. Inspired by Plato’s portrait of Socrates in the aporetic works, Arcesilaus maintained that since we lack a secure criterion of truth, knowledge is altogether inaccessible. Specifically, he contended against the Stoics that no sense impression is self-validating, for we cannot rule out the possibility of false impressions which resemble the truth in every detail. In brief, any one of our perceptions, no matter how clear and distinct, may for all we know be false, and we have no criterion to distinguish the true from the false perceptions.

Later skeptics, particularly those in the Pyrrhonian tradition, insisted that even logic and reason are subject to this so-called “problem of the criterion,” for of any argument we may inquire respecting its ultimate justification. Even granting that the conclusion follows from the premises, the question remains whether the premises are true. A dialectician may arbitrarily assume the truth of his premises, but assumptions are not demonstrations of truth. Another may attempt to demonstrate the truth of his premises by deriving them from the conclusion which the premises are meant to prove, but this results in a viciously circular argument. Yet another may avoid circularity by deriving his premises from premises independent of the conclusion at issue, but in this way he only defers the problem, for we may inquire into the criterion which justifies these new premises. And if in his reply he resists the urge to assume their truth arbitrarily, or to employ a circular argument, he will have to derive them from still other independent premises, in which case we shall then inquire after their criterion. And so on ad infinitum. In sum, then, the Pyrrhonian contends that the conclusion of every argument depends on premises whose truth is either hypothesized without proof, derived by way of fallaciously circular reasoning, or ultimately indemonstrable because subject to an infinite regress, which is to say that no conclusion is ever actually justified.

But if neither sense impressions nor argumentation can secure the truth, it would seem that nothing can. Nor will it help to appeal to the results of scientific investigation (more and more these days the popular appeal), for science no less than other forms of reasoning relies on sense impressions and argumentation. And even if we set aside every general skeptical objection, there are many specific arguments against the particular methods and claims of the sciences.

We might note, for example, that even the most successful of past scientific theories have in time been abandoned for more comprehensive, mathematically simpler, or more fruitful theories, from which we may infer that even the most successful of our current theories will suffer the same fate. Call this a pessimistic induction on the history of science.

Nor should we assume that any presently successful theory is true at least until it has been shown to fail, for neither practical nor theoretical success is proof of truth. Even false theories produce results. Hence the so-called “Instrumentalists” conceive of theories as tools, or instruments, which empower us to manipulate the world, but which have as little to do with truth as does a thumb or a wrench, which also empower us to manipulate our world.

Then there are those who argue that no rigorously scientific claims can be either verified or falsified, for propositions expressing universal laws must by definition assert more than finite experience can verify, and one may always redirect the force of falsifying observations from the specific hypothesis at issue to some other component of the broader theory.

There are even scholars who from the study of the historical record of actual scientific practice conclude that there is no uniform scientific method, nor any results derived exclusively from specifically scientific practices. Science as the theoretical construct one encounters in the textbooks may on paper appear an ideal resource for acquiring knowledge, but science as actually practiced is messier than this, and often even tangled up with unscientific assumptions and procedures.

Finally there are the Pragmatists, who advocate deflating or altogether abandoning our traditional notions of truth, reality, and the so-called “correspondence” relation supposed to obtain between true beliefs or propositions and the world, a relation which no one to date has satisfactorily explained.

All this is to say that for every claim to knowledge there are counter-claims of ancient or modern pedigree to oppose them. None of these arguments amounts to a proof against the possibility of knowledge or truth, yet we may appeal to them for permission to withhold assent from any particular claim to truth with which we are confronted. The general idea is consonant with the Pyrrhonian position, namely that for every argument there exists an equipollent counter-argument, and that given the balance of plausibility one ought to suspend judgment.

I have described the philosopher with reference to the artist as one who gives himself permission to experiment with ideas, even to mount revolutions against his own mind. In this, skepticism is his ally. For if nothing can be definitively known to be true, every idea is permitted. Only the three-fold belief that truth exists, that we know the truth, and that we have epistemic or moral obligations to honor the truth can restrict our freedom to engage at will in creative-intellectual exploration and innovation. I have come to call the position that aims to undermine this belief for the sake of a free-spirited mode of philosophy, “Creative Pyrrhonism.” Not every man is made for this, however. For the timidly indecisive, skepticism may be a symptom of exhaustion, the expression of a nihilistic resignation and denial of the will to affirm and negate. For the genuine philosopher, on the other hand, skepticism is the expression of a spirit dangerously uninhibited yet severe enough to resist the lure of degenerate license, the spirit that rises above belief and unbelief as master of its every Yes and No. With reference to the adherent of this audacious skepticism, we may say of Creative Pyrrhonism that the Pyrrhonian element clears the ground, the creative element promotes free play in the open space of the clearing.

Six weeks into my stay in the mountains I concluded that my friend was not coming. I had never known him to arrive so late in the season. He might surprise me yet, of course; but I no longer expected him. I could only hope that he was well and lament the absence of so inspiring a personality. As for myself and my own condition, although I had come to take the cure under my friend’s care (so to speak), I had begun to sense that I now possessed the charm to heal myself. I had suffered no headaches since arriving in the mountains, and while formulating my conception of the philosopher as a Creative-Pyrrhonist and thinker-artist I noticed that my mood improved distinctly, as manifested in a cheerfulness in my bearing and a lightness in my step, despite the seriousness of my purpose. I walked for hours every day, a notebook and pencil in my jacket pocket to record my thoughts, and under my arm my personal copy of the Platonis Dialogi, volume one. I read the Phaedo daily, as I have said, perusing the text with the fastidiousness of an old philologist and the daring of an artist, a Theseus of hermeneutical exploration. The dialogue was my labyrinth, doctrinal Platonism the Minotaur stalking the text, and insight into Plato himself as the playfully serious philosopher-artist would be my prize for slaying the beast of dogma. My friend’s inspiration was my Ariadne’s thread, and my adaptation of his perspective to my own intellectual and existential needs was my bronze sword.

One further source of my flourishing health and high spirits was the fact that I had finally resolved to resign from the university. Mine will be an early retirement, for I am still relatively young. But I am fortunate to be the beneficiary of a modest family inheritance, which together with my other savings and a small pension should sustain me in a modest life for years to come. I decided to teach for one more year, for I had obligations to various students whose futures were of concern to me, and I did not like to abandon my colleagues without providing them sufficient opportunity to replace me. But the matter was conclusively settled in my mind, and with the promise of emancipation finally having been pledged, I felt as if I were already free.

At lunch one day near the end of my stay I reflected on the several decisions I had recently taken, particularly my determination finally to incorporate my new way of thinking into my way of life. It occurred to me then that these developments would provide a suitable theme for a new philosophical composition, resembling the intellectual autobiography I had recently composed, but less stylistically experimental and more straightforwardly substantive. In the moment sitting over my meal the inspiration was overwhelming. Unfortunately, I had neglected when leaving my room to take my notebook from my desk. I had a pencil in my pocket but no paper on which to write. Therefore I asked the waiter for a clean sheet from his notepad, and when he gave it to me I covered it front and back with a detailed outline of this book, which is to say this very book that you are now reading. I revised the substance in minor particulars while writing at home during this past academic term (my last!), but now that the work is nearly complete I see with pleasure that I have more or less adhered to my original conception. In any case, the writing of this outline amplified my good mood, and after placing the folded paper in my jacket pocket I hurried out for a long walk without returning to my room. That night I slept more soundly than I had in years, deeply content with my station and condition.

The next morning I awoke excited about my new project, and I went out for an early walk on the grounds of the sanatorium to ruminate on the work. This time I did not forget my notebook. I filled a page with commentary supplementary to my outline, and for the next several days I kept to this routine. Immediately after breakfast I would circle the grounds of the sanatorium then cross the meadow toward the lake and sit for a while on my friend’s bench, thinking, reading, and writing, then circle the lake and pause again on the bench before returning to my room to nap before lunch. Viewed from above, my course traced out a lemniscate, the figure-eight curve which symbolizes infinity, and which has also been employed to depict the ouroboros. I took this as significant of the self-reflectivity of the philosophical life, the love of wisdom which by continually streaming out perpetually surges into itself.

Constant meditation on the Phaedo inspired my decision to present my own work as a fiction. I had come to associate Plato’s greatest dialogues more closely with, for example, Homer’s Iliad, Michelangelo’s Pietà, and Beethoven’s symphonies than with Aristotle’s Physics or Kant’s first Critique. Or rather I should say that Plato’s works spring from the masterly combination of all these styles. Not as the output of a decadent motley type, but rather as the self-expression of history’s first capacious soul. Plato was a rare amalgamation of the types of Pythagoras, Sophocles, and Thucydides. Most great spirits are one type or the other—the thinker or the artist—which makes them pure but limited, and therefore ultimately exhaustible. Plato on the other hand approaches the infinite: his thought flows into his art, his art floods through his thought, in a perpetual cycle of mutually infusing enrichment. Therefore his work is inexhaustible, ultimately unfathomable, and, to state the obvious, quite the opposite of boring.

Needless to say it is not my intention to compare my work to Plato’s, no more than to associate the consequence with the source of inspiration. The dialogues moved me to explore my every resource of creativity, and to interweave my artistry with my intellect. It may well be that here the similarity ends. I can live with that, for the person I have come to be through this interweaving is a man with whom, and as whom, I am happy to live.

In any case, as I say, I conceived this little book last summer, near the end of my most recent sojourn in the mountains. Call it a memorial to my friend, or to myself as I was healed through the influence of his charm. Or both: for as I remarked at the commencement of my story, these days it is hard to make such nice distinctions. And perhaps it is worth noting here, as I conclude this final chapter, that I very nearly did not write this book, not anyway in its present form. I almost lost the outline—or rather I did lose it, only to have it returned to me.

One morning as I sat on my bench gazing out over the lake, my volume of Plato beside me, and thoughts of the Phaedo as philosophical art spiraling through my mind, I sensed a presence in my peripheral vision. There beside me stood a man whom I had seen in passing on my last few walks, his arm outstretched and in his hand a folded piece of paper. He had observed it fall from my pocket as I withdrew my notebook while walking toward the lake, he said.

I took the paper and inspected it, and of course I recognized it immediately. My outline! I had almost lost it forever! You can imagine how thankful I was to the man. I leapt up and shook his hand, smiling broadly and expressing my infinite gratitude, so hard-won were the thoughts I’d recorded there, so vital to my well-being, past and future alike. And for the present, too, naturally.

***        

The Next Installment

***

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.