I’ve been reading bits and pieces of the great philosophers lately, particularly the Germans. It’s interesting and sometimes provocative, though most philosophers seem incapable of communicating in anything but abstractions and dense prose. It’s as if clear exposition is against the key principles of modern philosophy.
I’ve often thought that philosophy is sort of pointless because it seems impractical. Why lock yourself in a room to postulate and pontificate about something you can actually do if you leave the room – it seems the very definition of navel gazing . In my muscular perspective the philosophy of life is expressed through the living of it. ‘Philosophy’ is not a tangible reality after all, but a perspective, and often a description of something that ‘just is’. It’s like a bunch of people looking to describe something – a platypus say – in abstract terms, defining it in arcane terms while the marsupial frolics in its billabong. As Freud might have said, sometimes a platypus is just a platypus.
Yet that is to take a simplistic and wrong-headed sense of the discipline, of which I’ve been guilty. Gravity just is, and no amount of analysis is going to change its essential qualities – and yet understanding it means more than just scientific enlightenment. Once we measure gravity, understand how it works and why, then we can begin to work with it ourselves. Understanding opens many more avenues to us. So too, I think, can philosophy.
Philosophy is not so much an explanation of how we live and interact, but why. It becomes more than a dry abstraction when it moves into how we might live. It’s a search for enlightenment.
For every philosopher there is a different philosophy, though many take from their predecessors and build upon it. Each has their own perspective, in part due to their education, their cultural inheritance, their teachers, their passions, the tenor of the times.
Marx is one of the more contentious, and influential figures in history. He certainly couldn’t be accused of sitting quietly in a room thinking. His was a kind of economic philosophy that led directly into social philosophy, and consequently, the rights of the ‘proletariat’. His was a philosophy that demanded action as outcome, which chickens came home to roost (and have been crowing since) at later times in different places.
There’s much to admire in Marx and Engels. Smart cookies both and extremely erudite, much of what they struggled for then seems pretty tame these days, such has society advanced (though almost in contradiction to his predictions). Everyone has an opinion, especially when the outcomes have been so spectacularly historical. Marx is a bogeyman, and for much of the last hundred years communism, socialism and Marxism have either been rallying cries for social progress or descriptors for evil. That’s a big discussion with a lot of misinformation both ways. As a died in the wool western capitalist I’d have to suggest that most of it doesn’t really work, even when purely applied (which is to say, practically never). But then I’d also have to admit that there’s nothing inherently evil in communism et al, except that it seems to attract and propagate opportunist dictators or hard line fanatics. In either case the centralised state tends to the totalitarian, and much evil has been done. But I digress.
Getting back to pure philosophy I can agree and disagree with much of what the headline philosophers say – Hegel, Fichte, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard etc (Nietzsche is in his own box) – but the one philosopher I find myself most sympathetic to is Immanuel Kant. We live in a different time from his, 18th century Germany, there’s been a lot of history since and we’ve progressed far, and so we can come at understanding his concepts much easier now than we might have then. I think it’s valid to consider Freud and Jung and the like as philosophers, and it is their investigations which have helped open the door to philosophical understanding within the context of human psychology. Man may exist within the world, but he also exists within himself. Kant understood that, and Freud, Jung, as well as most philosophers, have expanded upon that since as pretty well the central principle of the discipline.
My reading confirmed one abiding disappointment in modern society. We don’t think about these things anymore. We live and consume. There’s no interest in understanding, the conversation and level of thought has been reduced to the tabloid. Indeed, intellectuality is actively frowned upon as being elitist in great sections of society. How destructive is that? This is one of my great beefs of the time. Man, I can live and do as much as society does, and at times I can do it in spades, yet intellectually, and perhaps philosophically, I feel out of step with all but a few.
It’s perhaps now more than ever that we need public intellectuals and philosophers to step forward to make sense of our world, to bring some order and understanding to how we have come to live. I wonder what some of the great intellectuals of the past would make of the world today with gen Y in the ascendancy?