Aphorisms; The Importance Of A Good Philosophy

Adapted from Private Conversation:

A good philosophy is like a well-built house. There are many different ways it can be built, but there are certain basic needs (or even very particular needs) which it needs to meet in order to be a good house. In the same way that a house needs to keep people warm, some philosophies can leave people out in the cold if they don’t answer certain questions well. Modern science is a primary example of this because it was developed in a specific way that it didn’t need to be and now it has a habitual way of seeing the world which subtracts meaning from it (see Lewis’ The Empty Universe, or Barfield’s The Rediscovery of Meaning, or Charles Taylor on Buffered and Porous Selves). So, again, a world primarily informed by modern science is often lucky if it isn’t left significantly empty by that science. This is why Lewis wrote the essay called the Empty Universe. The way of seeing which science pushes is a big deal, and part of how it got there was often the result of certain decisions in philosophy or spirituality that have had a big impact along the way.

Then again a good philosophy is like a computer program – I learned this because around the time I was getting into Philosophy I also was taught some programming classes by my dad – these gave me much more knowledge of structural issues than of computer languages, which I hardly know now. But a computer program is made to call up certain code under certain conditions. If it goes to certain code and the code doesn’t actually remedy the situation satisfactorily, then the program defaults and an error occurs, sometimes crashing the system. The same thing happens in people’s lives. People run into real life issues when the (implicit or explicit) philosophy they have been taught requires certain “code” and calls it up and they discover that the code is lacking. This can create great despair and years of searching.

Now this doesn’t mean that philosophy is supposed to be taught completely authoritatively. In fact it only works by dialogue and dogma (in the traditional, European sense of doctrine and tradition), which is why it is so significant that Socrates and Jesus and the best Philosophers have written by showing little talks. If something is not convincing, we discuss why. If it is finally found lacking, it is acknowledged and that is that if nothing else is proposed. The history of philosophy is thus a long conversation. Someone who has studied it well can dwell in it like a house. Either it works or it does not. It works like a code in that it will run into errors sooner or later, bigger or smaller. The smaller they are, the more it will be like a dialogue. The bigger they are the more it will require both creativity and even revelation

I am saying all of this to illustrate how I believe philosophy has very real consequences and how it is important.

[It occurs to me that that some people will think this is meant to be exhaustive, or that this means I am purely constructivist about philosophy. I believe there is a “single truth” in life, but exactly how one gets there, or in what sense or degree anyone does get there, is a very complex matter. In short, Truth is not constructed; Philosophies are.]

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Some notes on how we know things

 

These have been slightly adapted from a discussion I had on Facebook. Hopefully they will appear to be of merit. Most or all of this is not original to me.

1.  The problem with Kant (and others) saying that you should think for yourselves is that he is still telling you to think that. This is a modern doctrine; it has benefits, but it is not so bad to imitate the thought of someone else so long as you find the right thinker to imitate. This is difficult. There are good things to imitate in Kant and Descartes and modern (and Post-Modern) philosophy, but there is an unnatural and unnecessary rejection of earlier philosophies in them and a misunderstanding of how they work. For a Christian, this is undoubtedly the place where Revelation, that He is There and He is Not Silent (as the non-Academic but often quite edifying Francis Schaeffer puts it) comes in most significantly and profoundly, redemptively.

2.  Words are so interesting. My impression is that dogma still has a real existence as a word in Europe, and even indoctrination originally (if I remember) had, too.

[Meaning, I don’t think these words are essentially used negatively or even manipulatively at all points in their history. The Vatican has a Ministry of Propaganda – but they don’t mean what we mean by “Propaganda.” They are probably using two-millenia-old Latin terminology for the purpose of the ministry – to propagate.]

3.  I think, interestingly, that both conformity and “criticism” are largely imitative. An original thinker almost never happens unless they are original by knowing what they imitate so well that they improve on what they imitate (both C. S. Lewis and George Steiner testify to this in remarkable ways). In this way, I don’t think it is totally fair to say that “indoctrination” stifles creativity and criticism. It is like that Owen Barfield quote from The Rediscovery of Meaning – we tend to think we are open minded today, but in reality we are just more open minded about different things.

4.  I am beginning to think the issue of indoctrination is complex. Belief A can be held as a good belief to teach by both Man X and Man Y (and yet, what do we mean by “Good”? Two different concepts are commonly operative. See Lewis’ The Abolition of Man), but Man X wants to raise the student to a fuller humanity, whereas Man Y just wants to manipulate the situation to his advantage. In the absence of access to the truth about the belief and/or a good third perspective which can try to avoid the belief’s being used manipulatively, I think it is unfair to say what is exactly actually indoctrination and what isn’t. Perhaps a different word should he used.

5. Complicating everything  is my belief that authority can be a category of legitimate knowledge (think of the role of Revelation and of Mysteries specifically in the Christian faith). I think that there are generally three means of knowledge or rational knowledge – being Experience, Logic/Reason (a priori), and Authority. The question here is not, for me, whether authority can be a proper base for knowledge, but which authorities are and to what extent. Many of the points often made about manipulative “indoctrination,” as opposed to humanistic education, can, I think, be used edifyingly for humanistic education to the point that they are neither manipulative or indoctrination. Yet we have a habit, a tradition, in the modern West, to rejecting the face of authority. (We see how false this rejection is when we see the defacto authority which science, academia, politicians, media, and even regular entertaibment TV can have in the establishment of “public truths,” unquestioned, or questioned even sometimes at potential peril.) — This edification, then, is diametrically opposed to the manipulation which we are talking about. This is inherently related to the issue of idols and true worship in the Bible, historical Christianity and post-modern thought (Heidegger’s teachings are signfiicant here, through Westphal’s readings of them alone).

6.  Also, I think The Trio of Sources for Knowledge help upbuild each other. It is often by a mix of Authority and Experience that we learn about Reason/Logic. Geometry and Logic are literally learned practices which require discipline and a devotion of rigor. Anyone who tells you to think for yourself is giving you a tradition to follow and a thought that is not your own, and they give it to you on the basis of their authority and experience much more often than on the basis of reason alone, although that is in theory possible. Alternatively, experience seems to yield knowledge both on the basis of reason, “this worked in the past” and similar propositions, but it also is from a sort of tradition which is passed on to us; the very fact that most humans do not hold to modern science and its assumptions is proof that the assumptions of modern science are not really so self-evident as they are professed to be but that they are accepted often on authority of a tradition (with some experience and supporting reasons). Then again, authority is held up because experience teaches us that our elders, and some “authorities,” are often right; and reason can supply reasons as to why or how this is so. You cannot really rely on experience and reason without authority, for you learned of the value of experience and reason from authorities in your life. Experience testifies to a degree of veracity in both Reason and Authority. And the Reason can offer up not just “reasons,” but a substantial way in which the content of beliefs (beliefs proffered by Experience, Authority, and Reason) can be structured and held coherently. Yet even the structure of a system is affected by tradition and experience as well as by logic.

There is not any easy way to get to the bottom of this, although I think tradition and authority are far undervalued and are important in ghe same way that there must be some originary force which institutes reason and experience. And we can learn about this from authority.

7.  It is really very true that all of Western philosophy are footnotes to Plato. And yet Plato is built signfiicantly on Socrates. And Socrates had predecessors and had significant divine influences. And yet, even Nietzsche is hopelessly derivative, in many ways by being a negative imitator of what he rejects.