THE PHILOSOPHICAL ACT
The reason why the philosopher can be compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonder…
– St. Thomas Aquinas
When the physicist poses the question, ”What does it mean to do physics?” or ”What is research in physics?” – his question is a preliminary question. Clearly, when you ask a question like that, and try to answer it, you are not ”doing physics.” Or, rather, you are no longer doing physics. But when you ask yourself, ”What does it mean to do philosophy?” then you actually are ”doing philosophy” – this is not at all a ”preliminary” question but a truly philosophical one: you are right at the heart of the business. To go further: I can say nothing about the existence of philosophy and philosophizing without also saying something about the human being, and to do that is to enter one of the most central regions of philosophy. Our question, ”What is the philosophical act?” belongs, in fact, to the field of philosophical anthropology.
Now, because it is a philosophical question, that means it cannot be answered in a permanent or conclusive way. It pertains to the very nature of a philosophical question that its answer will not be a ”perfectly rounded truth” (as Parmenides said it), grasped in the hand like an apple plucked from a tree. Later, we will have occasion to discuss the ”hopefulness” built into philosophy and philosophizing, but for the moment we cannot promise a handy definition, a comprehensive answer to our question. Indeed, our four brief essays will barely be enough to clarify the problem as a whole.
But, for a first approach, we can venture the following: a philosophical act is an act in which the work–a–day world is transcended. We must first explain what we mean by ”work-a-day world,” and second, what we mean by ”transcending” it.
The work–a–day world is the world of the working day, the world of usefulness, of purposeful action, of accomplishment, of the exercising of functions; it is the world of supply and demand, the world of hunger and the satisfaction of hunger. It is a world dominated by one goal: the realization of the ”common utility”; it is the world of work, to the extent that work is synonymous with ”useful activity” (a characteristic both of activity and effort). The process of working is the process of realizing the ”common utility”; this concept is not equivalent to that of the ”common good” (bonum commune): the ”common utility” is an essential component of the ”common good,” but the concept of the bonum commune is much more comprehensive. For example, as Thomas puts it , there are people who devote themselves to the ”un-useful” life of contemplation; to philosophize belongs to the common good, whereas one could not say that contemplation, vision, or philosophizing serve the ”common utility.” Of course, in the present day bonum commune and the ”common utility” seem to be growing more identical every day; of course (it comes to the same thing) the world of work begins to become – threatens to become – our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.
If it is correct to say that the philosophical act is one which transcends the working world, then our question, ”What does it mean to philosophize?” – our so very theoretical, abstract question – becomes suddenly, and unexpectedly, a question of utmost relevance. We need only to take a single step, in our thoughts or in physical space, to find ourselves in a world in which the working process, the process of realizing the ”common utility,” determines the whole realm of human existence. Inwardly and outwardly, there is a boundary, very near and easy to jump across, in order to win entry into the work–a–day world, in which there is no such thing as genuine philosophy and genuine philosophizing – all this presupposes, of course, that it is correct to say that ”philosophy transcends the working world” and that it pertains to the very essence of the philosophical act not to belong this world of uses and efficiencies, of needs and satisfactions, this world of ”useful good” (bonum utile), of the ”common utility,” but is, rather, to be incommensurable to it in principle. Indeed, the more acute the incommensurability, the more obvious the ”not-belonging.” It could even be said, perhaps, that this very opposition, this threat from the world of total work, is what characterizes the situation of philosophy today more than its own particular content. Philosophy increasingly adopts necessarily, it seems the character of the alien, of mere intellectual luxury, of that which seems ever more intolerable and unjustifiable, the more exclusively the demands of the daily world of work take over the world of man.
And yet, we have something more to say, something very concrete, about the incommensurability of the philosophical act, of this transcending the world of work, that takes place in the philosophical act.
Let’s recall the things that dominate the contemporary working day; no special effort of the imagination is needed, for we all stand right in the middle of it. There is, first of all, the daily running back and forth to secure our bare physical existence, food, clothing, shelter, heat; then, the anxieties that affect, and absorb, each individual: the necessities of rebuilding our own country, Europe, and the world. Struggles for power for the exploitation of earth’s commodities, conflicts of interest in matters great and small. Everywhere, tensions and burdens – only superficially eased by hastily arranged pauses and diversions: newspapers, movies, cigarettes. I do not need to paint it in any fuller detail: we all know what this world looks like. And we need not only direct our attention to the extreme instances of crisis that show themselves today: I mean simply the everyday working world, where we must go about our business, where very concrete goals are advanced and realized: goals that must be sighted with an eye fixed on the things nearest and closest at hand. Now it is not our purpose here to condemn this world, from the standpoint of some ”holiday–world” of philosophy. No words need be wasted on saying that this work–a–day world is very much with us, that in it the foundations of our physical existence are secured, without which nobody can philosophize at all! Nevertheless, let us also recall, that among the voices which fill the workplace and the markets (”How do you get this or that item of daily existence?”, ”Where do you get that?” etc.) – in the midst of all these voices suddenly one calls out above the rest: ”Why is there anything at all, and not nothing?” – asking that age-old question, which Heidegger called the basic question of all metaphysics! Must we explicitly state how unfathomable this philosopher’s question is, in comparison with that everyday world of needs and purposefulness? If such a question as this were asked, without introduction or interpretation, in the company of those people of efficiency and success, wouldn’t the questioner be considered rather… mad? Through such extremely formulated contrasts, how ever, the real, underlying distinction comes to the fore: it becomes clear that even to ask that question constitutes taking a step toward transcending, toward leaving behind, the work–a–day world. The genuine philosophical question strikes disturbingly against the canopy that encloses the world of the citizen’s work–day.
But the philosophical act is not the only way to take this ”step beyond.” No less incommensurable with the working-world than the philosophical question is the sound of true poetry:
In middle and ending ever stands the tree,
The birds are singing; on God’s breast
The round Creation takes its holy rest …
Such a voice sounds utterly strange in the realm of actively realized purpose. And no differently sounds the voice of one who prays: ”We praise you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory …” How can that ever be understood in the categories of rational usefulness and efficiency? The lover, too, stands outside the tight chain of efficiency of this working world, and who ever else approaches the margin of existence through some deep, existential disturbance (which always brings a ”shattering” of one’s environment as well), or through, say, the proximity of death. In such a disturbance (for the philosophical act, genuine poetry, musical experience in general, and prayer as well – all these depend on some kind of disturbance) in such an experience, man senses the non-ultimate nature of this daily, worrisome world: he transcends it; he takes a step outside it.
And because of their common power to disturb and transcend, all these basic behavioral patterns of the human being have a natural connection among themselves: the philosophical act, the religious act, the artistic act, and the special relationship with the world that comes into play with the existential disturbance of Love or Death. Plato, as most of us know, thought about philosophy and love in similar terms. And as for the close connection between philosophy and poetry, we can refer to a little-known statement by Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics: the Philosopher is akin to the Poet in this, that both are concerned with the mirandum, the ”wondrous,” the astonishing, or whatever calls for astonishment or wonder. This statement is not that easy to fathom, since Thomas, like Aristotle, was a very sober thinker, completely opposed to any Romantic confusion of properly distinct realms. But on the basis of their common orientation toward the ”wonderful” (the mirandum – something not to be found in the world of work!) – on this basis, then, of this common transcending-power, the philosophical act is related to the ”wonderful,” is in fact more closely related to it than to the exact, special sciences; to this point we shall return.
The closeness of this connection is so real that when ever one member of the system is denied, the others cannot thrive: the result is that in a world of total work, all the various forms and methods of transcendence must themselves become sterile (or, rather, would have to become sterile, if it were possible to destroy human nature completely); where religion is not allowed to grow, where the arts can find no place, where the disturbances of love and death lose their depth and become banal – there too, philosophy and philosophizing cannot survive. But worse than the mere extinguishing or silencing is the distortion into false forms of the original; there are such pseudo–realizations of those basic experiences, which only appear to pierce the canopy. There is a way to pray, in which ”this” world is not transcended, in which, instead, one attempts to incorporate the divine as a functioning component of the work–a–day machinery of purposes. Religion can be perverted into magic so that instead of self–dedication to God, it becomes the attempt to gain power over the divine and make it subservient to one’s own will; prayer can become a technique for continuing to live life ”under the canopy.” And further: love can be narrowed so that the powers of self-giving become subservient to the goals of the confined ego, goals which arise from an anxious selfdefense against the disturbances of the larger, deeper, world, which only the truly loving person can enter. There are pseudo–forms of art, a false poetry, which, instead of breaking through the roof over the work–a–day world, resigns itself, so to speak, to painting decorations on the interior surface of the dome, and puts itself more or less obviously to the service of the working world as private or public ”fashion poetry”; such ”poetry” never seems to transcend, not even once (and it is clear, that genuine philosophizing has more in common with the exact, special sciences than with such pseudo–poetry!).
Finally, there is a pseudo–philosophy, whose essential character is precisely that it does not transcend the working world. In a dialogue of Plato, Socrates asks the sophist Protagoras just what he teaches the youth who flock to see him? And the answer is, ”I teach them good planning, both in their own affairs, such as how one should best manage his own household, and in public affairs, how one can best speak and act in the city-state.” That is the classic program of ”Philosophy as Professional Training” – a seeming philosophy only, with no transcendence.
But even worse still, of course, is that all these pseudo–forms work together, not only in failing to transcend the world, but in more and more surely succeeding in closing off the world ”under the canopy”: they seal off humanity all the more within the world of work. All these deceptive forms, and especially such seeming-philosophy, are something much worse, something much more hopeless, than the naive self-closing of the worldly man against what is not of daily-life. Someone who is merely naively confined to the work–a–day may one day nevertheless be touched by the disturbing power that lies hidden in a true philosophical question, or in some poem; but a sophist, a pseudo–philosopher, will never be ”disturbed.”
But let us now return to the path marked out by our initial question: when a question is asked in the truly philosophical manner, one asks about something that transcends the working world. This shows that such a question, and such a way of calling into question, possesses a special acuteness today, since the world of total work has emerged with demands more all-encompassing than ever before in history. And yet, this is not merely to make a criticism of a period of history. It is rather to speak of a misunderstanding that is fundamentally timeless in nature.
For Plato, the laughter of the Thracian maiden, who saw Thales of Miletus fall into a well while he was staring at the skies, is the typical response of feet-on-the-ground, work–a–day reasoning to philosophy. And this anecdote of the Thracian maid stands at the very beginning of Western Philosophy. ”And always,” as Plato says in the Theaetetus, the philosopher is the butt of humor, ”not only for Thracian maidens, but for most people, because one who is a stranger to the world falls into wells, and into many other embarrassments too.”
Plato does not only express himself explicitly, in formal statements: he prefers to use images. There is a certain Apollodoros, a character of secondary importance (as it seems at first) in the dialogues Phaedo and Symposium. Apollodoros is one of those uncritical, enthusiastic youths in Socrates’ circle, who may represent someone like Plato himself once was. We hear of Apollodoros in the Phaedo that he alone among the assembled burst into groaning and tears when Socrates put the cup of hemlock to his lips: ”You know this man and his manner.” In the Symposium Apollodoros says of himself that for years he was eager to know what Socrates said and did every day. ”I ran around, and thought I was doing something, but was just as miserable as anyone.” But now, in a wonderful way, he has given himself over completely to Socrates and philosophy.
In the city now they call him ”crazy Apollodoros”; he rails against everyone (even himself) but only spares Socrates. In complete naivete´, he lets it be known everywhere, ”how happy he is, beyond all measure,” when he talks about philosophy or hears someone else do so; and then again, how wretched he is, that he has not yet attained to the real thing, to be like Socrates! One day, this Apollodoros encounters some friends of his from earlier days – the very ones, in fact, who now call him ”crazy”, the ”madman.” As Plato expressly points out, they are business people, people of money, who know precisely how someone can succeed, and who ”intend to do something big in the world.” These friends inquire of Apollodoros, to tell them something about the speeches about Love that were delivered at a certain banquet at the house of the poet Agathon. It is clear that these successful businessmen really feel no desire to be instructed about the meaning of life and existence, and certainly not from Apollodoros! What interests them is only the witty remarks, the well-spoken repartee, the formal elegance of the debate. And on his part, Apollodoros cherishes no illusions about the ”philosophical” interests of his old friends. Rather, he says directly to their face, how much he pities them, ”… because you believe you are accomplishing something, when you really are not. And maybe now you are thinking, I am not very well off, and you may be right, but I do not merely think’ the same about you, I know it for sure!” All the same, he does not refuse to tell them about the Love-speeches; indeed, he cannot be silent – ”If you really want me to tell you, I will have to do it” – even though they may take him for a madman. And then Apollodoros narrates… the Symposium! For the Platonic ”banquet” has the form of indirect speech: a report from the mouth of Apollodoros. Too little attention, in my view, has been paid to the fact that Plato allows his deepest thoughts to be expressed through this over-enthusiastic, uncritical youth, this over-eager disciple Apollodoros. And the audience of the report is a group of moneyed, successful Athenians, who are not really prepared to listen to such thoughts or even take them seriously! There is something hopeless in this situation, a temptation to despair, against which (this is probably what Plato means) only the youthful, undistracted thirst for wisdom, the true philosophia, can take a stand. In any case, Plato could not have brought out any more clearly the incommensurability between philosophizing and the self–sufficient world of daily work.
And yet the incommensurability of this situation is not merely negative, for there is another side as well, known as… freedom. For philosophy is ”useless” in the sense of immediate profit and application – that is one thing. Another thing is, that philosophy cannot allow itself to be used, it is not at the disposal of purposes beyond itself, for it is itself a goal. Philosophy is not functional–knowing, but rather, as John Henry Newman put it, is gentleman’s knowledge, not ”useful,” but ”free” knowing. But this freedom means that philosophical knowing does not acquire its legitimacy from its utilitarian applications, not from its social function, not from its relationship with the ”common utility.” Freedom in exactly this sense is the freedom of the ”liberal arts,” as opposed to the ”servile arts,” which, according to Thomas, ”are ordered to a use, to be attained through activity.” And philosophy has long been understood as the most free among the free arts (the medieval ”Arts Faculty” is the forerunner of the ”Philosophical Faculty” of today’s university).
Therefore, it is all the same whether I say that the philosophical act transcends the working world, or whether I say, philosophical knowing is useless or whether I say, philosophy is a ”liberal art.” This freedom belongs to the particular sciences only to the extent that they are pursued in a philosophical manner. Here likewise is to be found – both historically and actually – the real meaning of ”academic freedom” (since ”academic” means ”philosophical” if it means anything!); strictly speaking, a claim for academic freedom can only exist when the ”academic” itself is realized in a ”philosophical” way. And this is historically the reason: academic freedom has been lost, exactly to the extent that the philosophic character of academic study has been lost, or, to put it another way, to the extent that the totalitarian demands of the working world have conquered the realm of the university. Here is where the metaphysical roots of the problem lie: the ”politicization” is only a symptom and consequence. And indeed, it must be admitted here that this is nothing other than the fruit… of philosophy itself, of modern philosophy! Of which theme, more will soon have to be said.
But first, something needs to be said on the theme of philosophy’s ”freedom,” in distinction from the special sciences: and this means a freedom understood as not-being-subordinated-to-purposes. In this sense, the special sciences are ”free” only insofar as they are pursued in a philosophical way, insofar, that is to say, as they share in the freedom of philosophy. As Newman put it, ”Knowledge, I say, is then especially liberal, or sufficient for itself, apart from every external and ulterior object, when and so far as it is philosophical.” Considered in themselves, however, the various particular sciences are essentially ”to-be-subordinated-to-purposes”; they are essentially relatable to a ”use that is reached through activity” (as Thomas says of the servile arts).
But we can speak still more concretely! The government of a state can say, ”In order to complete our five-year plan, we need physicists who can catch up with the progress of foreign nations in this or that special area,” or ”We need medical doctors, who can develop a more effective flu vaccine.” In these cases, nothing is being said or done that is contrary to the nature of these sciences. But, if someone were to say, ”We need some philosophers, who…” Will do what? There could only be one possibility: ”… will justify, develop, defend, such and such an ideology…” To say this and act upon it would be a destruction of philosophy! And it would come to the same, if someone said, ”We need some poets, who will…” Who will do what? Again, it could only be one thing: ”who… will [as the expression goes] use the pen as a sword, on behalf of certain ideals determined by reasons of state…” And if this was being said, we would likewise see the destruction of poetry. In the same moment, poetry would cease to be poetry, and philosophy would cease to be philosophy.
But this is not to say that no relationship whatsoever can be found between the realization of the common good of a nation and any teaching of philosophy that takes place in it! Rather, the point is that such a relationship cannot be instituted and regulated by the administrators of the common good; that which has its meaning and purpose in itself, that which is itself purpose, cannot be made the means for some other purpose, just as someone can not love a person ”for such and such” or ”in order to do such and such”!
Now, this freedom of philosophy, this quality of not-being-subservient-to some purpose is intimately connected with something else (a connection which seems extremely important to point out): the theoretical character of philosophy. Philosophy is the purest form of theorein, or speculari (to observe, behold, contemplate), consisting in a purely receptive gaze on reality, whereby things alone are determinative, and the soul is completely receptive of determination. Whenever some existent is taken up into view in a philosophical way, the questions are asked in a ”purely theoretical” manner, and that means a manner untouched by anything practical, by any intention to change things, and thereby be raised above all serving of further purposes.
The realization of theoria in this sense is, however, connected with a presupposition. For what is presumed is a definite relationship with the world, a relationship that appears to precede all conscious positing or setting-forth of some intention. For to be ”theoretical” in this full sense (in the sense of a purely receptive contemplation, without the slightest trace of an intention to change things; rather, it is precisely the opposite, a willingness to make the ”yes” or ”no” of the will dependent on the actuality of being, which is to be brought to expression in the knowledge of being) – the vision of man will only be ”theoretical” in this undiluted sense, when being, the world, is something other than him and is more than the mere field, the mere raw material, of human activity. Only that person can view the world ”theoretically” in the fullest sense, for whom the world is something worthy of reverence, and ultimately, creation in the strict sense. On this foundation alone can be realized the ”purely theoretical” property that is of the essence of philosophy. In this way, it would be a connection of the deepest and most intimate kind, whereby the freedom of philosophizing and of philosophy itself is ultimately made possible. And it would not be cause of wonder, that the removal of such a relationship with the world or such a connection (i.e., the connection in virtue of which the world is seen as creation, and not merely raw material) – that the removal of that connection would progress step by step with the destruction of the genuinely theoretical character of philosophy, as well as of its freedom and transcendence-over-function; and even the destruction of philosophy itself.
There is a direct path from Francis Bacon, who said, ”Knowledge is Power,” that the value of all knowing lies in the provision of human life with new discoveries and helps, to Descartes, who in his Discourse on Method explicitly formulated the polemical program to replace the old ”theoretical” philosophy with a new ”practical” one, through which we could make ourselves ”the Lords and Masters of nature” – from there the road leads directly into the well-known saying of Karl Marx, that up until his time philosophy saw its task as one of interpreting the world, but that now its task was to change the world.
This is the path along which the self-destruction of philosophy has traveled: through the destruction of its theoretical character, a destruction which in turn rests upon habitually seeing the world as the raw material of human activity. When the world is no longer looked upon as creation, there can no longer be theoria in the full sense. And with the fall of theoria, the freedom of philosophy falls as well, and what comes in its place is the functionalizing, the making it into something ”practical,” oriented toward a legitimation by its social function; what comes to the fore is the working character of philosophy, or of philosophy so-called. Meanwhile, our thesis (which can now be more clearly formulated), maintains that it is of the nature of the philosophical act, to transcend the world of work. This thesis, which comprehends both the freedom and theoretical character of philosophy, does not deny the world of work (in fact, it expressly presumes it as something necessary), but it maintains that true philosophy rests upon the belief that the real wealth of man lies not in the satisfaction of his necessities, nor, again, in ”be coming lords and masters of nature,” but rather in being able to understand what is – the whole of what is. Ancient philosophy says that this is the utmost fulfillment to which we can attain: that the whole order of real things be registered in our soul – a conception which in the Christian tradition was taken up into the concept of the beatific vision: ”What do they not see, who look upon Him, Who sees all?”