Know Thyself

Last time I signed off by saying, ‘make mine an espresso.’ While I do occasionally enjoy an espresso, I usually drink long blacks. I also said how fitting it was that my opening post was ‘being composed in a cafe.’ Although I did mostly work on it in my usual cafe, sipping a long black, I also worked on it at home at my desk, at the kitchen table, even on the couch. In fact I first sketched out its main points travelling on a train. Unlike my observations of party-goers which I made clearly generic and rhetorical, the statements about myself imply that they were actual events. I was saying something true.

Instead, I admit, I also employed them rhetorically. I went with the ubiquitous espresso over my more obscure preference of long black, because I thought it enhanced the prose, drawing a familiar picture of someone hunched over her laptop taking minuscule sips from those tiny cups simply to justify her continued occupation of a cafe seat. Similarly, by implying that my philosophy blog was being written entirely in a cafe I aimed to signify a continuity between my project and philosophy’s coffee house tradition. Above all else, though, I hoped generally my rhetoric would convey a genuine sense of opening a conversation; like one between friends meeting for a coffee — sincere, thoughtful, cheeky, stimulating, human.

Nevertheless, I am a philosopher. My admission of rhetorical liberties may be forgivable for a ‘writer,’ but a philosopher?

Wrinkled-browed, pursed-lipped, I imagine you — perturbed. I suspect that your impression of philosophy’s pervasive pedantry, over the very finest of details, prohibits such literary licence. And with a hop-skip-jump you’ve now made the leap to the question:

‘Hey, aren’t you philosophers only interested in the truth?’

Or, with one more mighty bound you reach:

‘But, isn’t philosophy the search for truth?’

Imagine it, philosophy departments the world over filled with pipe-puffing, slipper-wearing, armchair-bound, Indian Joneses all seeking out this holy grail ‘truth.’ Like it is some kind of lost artefact out there just waiting to be discovered.

Seriously, though, this might be right, but we have no reason to assume it. It is not obvious that truth is a thing in the world to be found. Truth might, alternately, be an ideal that we — individuals, societies, scientists, historians, writers, philosophers — conceive to function well as individuals, societies, scientists, historians, writers, philosophers. To further complicate things, if, say, individuality, culture, science, history, literature, philosophy can all be rightly thought of as truths, then what makes them so, let alone all at the same time?

Besides, whatever constitutes truth, whatever makes something true, the nature of any philosopher’s interest in it is already bound up in quite a bit of philosophy. Whether self-consciously or not, philosophers have already settled on some philosophical practice, method, or view prior to any appeal to truth. Now, I am not denying that philosophy is not in some way aiming at, or bound by, truth. Even post-modern philosophy’s infamous declaration that ‘there is NO truth’ is a truth of sorts. Just that being a philosopher cannot, and should not, be reduced to being a ‘truth-seeker.’

‘So what are philosophers about, then?’ you are asking out of curiosity not frustration, I hope.

‘Hmm, well, it depends…what do you mean by philosopher?’ is a likely reply.

‘Argh?’ you sigh. ‘Typical! A question that any normal person would give a straightforward answer to, a philosopher turns into an existential crisis. (Whatever that is?)’

The reason for such a reply is that for a philosopher to make any claim about what philosophy is about is again to assume some philosophy. To repeat, doing philosophy presupposes some philosophy, be it a certain practice, method, or view. The difficulty is that philosophy is completely methodologically self-referential. Unlike other fields of enquiry that, ultimately, appeal to some external philosophical view to define their objectives and practices, philosophy, ultimately, only has itself to look to. So, perhaps facetiously, what we philosophers are about is thinking about what we philosophers are about…

Less facetiously, the hazard of philosophy ‘only having itself to look to’ is that philosophy fails to question what it sees of itself, or worse, it does not look at itself at all. So any good philosophical practice must keep itself in view. With this in mind, I suggest that ancient philosophy’s central question of ‘how to live?’ and its professed Delphic solution ‘know thyself’ provides a clue to philosophy’s central method. If to ‘know thyself’ is philosophy’s end point, then being self-reflective might be ‘how to live.’ Self-reflection is usually understood as the serious examination of ourselves. It is how we can come to know ourselves. To regularly question ‘what are we doing, and why we are doing it?’

I propose that this question ‘what are we doing, and why are we doing it?’ expresses the guiding principle of philosophy. This self-reflective questioning, this coming to ‘know thyself,’ guards against philosophical blindspots by keeping philosophical practice in view. It is easy to think you have got the right idea in philosophy; however, it is terribly hard to know when you have actually got it right. So the what in the question encourages us to really get the idea right. But also, ideas do not appear from nowhere. People have ideas. So any idea can only be really understood in relation to the person/s having it. Thus, the question’s we reminds us to identify who is having the idea, to illuminate the context, motives, presumptions, prejudices of that who; while the why highlights the reasons and reasoning for that philosophical idea.

As I have mentioned repeatedly here, every philosophical claim (including mine!) presupposes some philosophy. Thus, it cannot be completely philosophically neutral. So you should not automatically accept my proposed guiding principle. Do not take my word for it. I suggest you examine it closely. Perhaps, ask yourself: what is this philosopher actually about? What is she doing? Why is she doing it?

Now I am not just being clever here. I am demonstrating a serious point. Next time, I plan to put this principle into practice.

A final word on my initial confession of my rhetorical liberties. Both my overt and covert rhetorical statements have elements that are fictional and factual, imagined and actual; and I pose that each, in their own way, may rightly be an expression of truth. So why does the overt please and the covert perturb? I suggest that it has little to do with philosophical pedantry, even less to do with truth, but rather more to do with a feeling of being fooled. I hate being fooled, and thus, perhaps my compulsion to confess.

Next time: ‘What are we doing and why are we doing it?’


2 thoughts on “Know Thyself

  1. I’m largely sympathetic with this. I guess there’s two main points I’d like to raise:

    1. I think a big problem with trying to isolate a general philosophical method is that philosophy is just so broad. It’s a bit like that `catch all’ term `science’. Social science ain’t the same thing as theoretical physics. Similarly, Gertrude Stein scholarship isn’t the same as the foundations of mathematics. Rather, `philosophy’ seems to be more like a family resemblance term.

    2. I think you have a pretty good stab though by characterising the driving philosophical questions “what are we doing, and why are we doing it?”. However, I thought you might have included a third question “how can we do it best?”. Obviously, this will be informed by the first two questions, but it seems possible to concur on those without having any agreement of how to move forward. Certainly in Foundations of Mathematics, *lots* of the attention is directed at this third arc.


  2. Thanks!
    In response to 1. I accept the broadness and variety of philosophical method within (academic) philosophy, that philosophy is probably best understood as a family relation, and also that this challenges any attempt to describe a ‘general philosophical method’. But I am interested in describing ‘being’ a philosopher which I think of as an approach to thinking and what it means to be such a thinker. This is not confined to academic philosophy, so potentially social scientists, theoretical physicists, Stein scholars, mathematician, everyperson, can all be philosophers. In turn, this may be criticised for being too inclusive and thus perhaps meaningless but I think that confuses a way a being with a method of doing something.

    In response to 2. I think questions of value are terribly tricky, the trickiest in philosophy. I do consider being our best philosophical selves is important (and I anticipate exploring this as the blog goes on), but I am uncertain how the best method to do something/philosophy figures in this. I have to think about it.


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