Aristotle, mashed up
The best philosophy? How would one argue for such a thing? Best tout court, for me, for us, for future generations? And how to compare? Do you prefer G.E. Moore’s naivety, or Hume’s scepticism? The astringency of Wittgenstein or the grand architecture of Kant? The deep obscurity of Hegel or the shallow obscurity of Heidegger? Logic or ethics, metaphysics or aesthetics or language? Do you want to open your mind, or impress your girlfriend?
But recast the question as one of personal preference, and it is equally absurd. This isn’t a farmer’s market, or a pick-and-mix sweet stand. You can accessorise with philosophy, or even with a philosophy. But you don’t choose a personal philosophy; it chooses you. Or rather, since there is no real choosing to speak of, you and it evolve together. And anyway, it’s not just about you, unless you’re doing it wrong.
And it’s always a mash-up. For me, that mash-up begins with Aristotle and ends with the greatest philosopher no one’s ever heard of, the American pragmatist C.S. Peirce. This being a family magazine, we can leave Peirce for another time. But Aristotle is the mutt’s proverbials: the philosopher-scientist who first drags man away from Platonic abstraction and back into the world, as a social animal.
That means reflection on what is given to us: on the earth, on human society, on humans as individuals and as a species. Knowledge is not elevated into some mystical access to an idealised world of "forms", but grounded in the study of the actual world as it is. The basic ethical question of how we are to live is answered not through a priori reflection, but through a rooted understanding of how we in fact do live, and of the institutions that give our lives point and purpose.
The result is a philosophy which is anti-ideological, and anti-individualistic. Virtue is understood not simply in terms of abstract moral universals, but as a disposition shaped by habit and culture and tradition. Change is seen as necessary, organic and gradual, not as innately desirable and disjointed from the past. Individual arrogance is replaced by a Burkean spirit of humility and respect for others, for society and for the world. Freedom becomes not the mere absence of constraint, but a positive capacity afforded by society for an individual to flourish. It’s a beguiling picture; at least it has beguiled me.
Plato's idea of flourishing
"So you see how our discussion concerns that which should be of the greatest importance to any person… that is to say, how one should live."
So says the character of Socrates in Plato’s sparkling dialogue on power and freedom, the "Gorgias", and it encapsulates why for me the greatest philosophy is to be found in Plato’s works—even if you don’t believe (as few of us do) in their underlying metaphysics, the theory of eternal and unchanging forms.
Plato never writes in his own voice; he never tells us what to think. Rather, he educates us in how to think. In his glorious dialogues, a wide variety of characters—philosophers, politicians, playwrights, soldiers and orators—discuss all the questions that really matter: the nature of love, beauty, knowledge and justice. These are discussions that leave space for the reader to enter. Underlying all of them is the question above: what is the best life and what sort of person does one have to be to live it? This approach to ethics focuses on the whole human being rather than on duties or the consequences of actions, and engages us emotionally as well as intellectually. And it is an approach to which the dialogue form is ideally suited: we are presented with an array of possible role models, and we are enabled to see how character, life and beliefs intertwine and influence one another. We are given a sense of the shape of a flourishing life.
"Flourishing"—eudaimonia in Greek—is not the same thing as pleasure, or even happiness. It is a more objective notion, concerned with the full realisation of our best faculties. We cannot always be happy, but we can always aim to fulfil our best potential—providing, of course, that we have done some informed thinking about what "best" might entail here.
For Plato, the best life is one in which reason and its desire for truth guides our sensual desires, and also our longing for honour and status. Without reason’s guidance, these other desires will be adversely shaped by a corrupting environment and will harm both self and society. Through reason, we can escape the confinements of nature and nurture, and see further than our own postcode. But of course reason can only provide this release if it is properly trained—which is yet another argument in favour of sharpening your intellectual muscles by becoming an active participant in Plato’s matchless dialogues.
If there is a best philosophy, it is surely the one which maintains that every philosophy is doubtful. This is known as scepticism, and it draws its inspiration from some ancient writers who took it much too far. Pyrrho of Elis, on the Ionian sea, was born in the fourth century BC, and is said to have advocated the suspension of judgment about how things really are. Apart from his name and location, almost nothing is known about him, which is rather fitting. Some two centuries later, Pyrrho’s ideas were expanded and defended by "Sextus Empiricus", of whom not even a real name or location are known.
Every great thinker has in effect adopted a partial version of this extreme philosophy. Each of them refuses to accept what all other philosophers say, and exempts only his own views from doubt. Ancient scepticism takes just one further step and exempts nobody. But this seems to be a fatal move, since scepticism must then swallow itself and disappear. With admirable consistency, Sextus concluded that the true sceptic must suspend judgment about suspending judgment.
It was David Hume, in the 18th century, who showed how to bring scepticism back to life. The first step is to keep in mind what Hume called the "strange infirmities" of human understanding, and the "universal perplexity and confusion, which is inherent in human nature". Armed with this knowledge—for our ignorance is the one thing of which we can be certain—we should be sure to exercise the "degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner". Apart from anything else, this would help to cure people of their "haughtiness and obstinacy".
In theory, we have all learned Hume’s lesson, because a modest scepticism is the official philosophy of the modern sciences, which avow the maxim that every result is to be probed, repeatedly, and no truth may be admitted until it has stood the test of time. But, in fact, we have not learned his lesson. Nobody has time to wait and see whether yesterday’s experiment will still stand several decades from now. Life is short and writers have deadlines. So scepticism is a philosophy that is not easy to live up to. But who would want a philosophy that was?
Outside the entrance to Plato’s Academy in Athens, there is said to have been a little sign which read, "Let no one enter here who knows no geometry". Whether or not this is true, it tells us something about the qualities philosophers have tended to prize.
But what if those qualities distort the conversation? Philosophy is a house of many mansions: abstract concepts might be just what you’re after in the philosophy of mathematics, but what about the questions raised by everyday life—questions about how we should live? Kant, for example, tried to derive moral principles using reason alone, and for all his rigour and logic it can be hard to recognise ourselves in what he wrote. He wasn’t even trying to give us a mirror, but to define what morality looks like for any rational creature, not just a human one. "There is, in philosophy," the American philosopher Stanley Cavell has said, "a certain drive to the inhuman, to an inhuman idea of intellectuality." I’m looking for a philosophy which brings us back to earth.
That philosophy is particularism, a fancy word for a simple idea: that in our ethical lives, rules are useless. Instead we should pay attention to real people in real situations. You can find arguments for it in thinkers as diverse as Aristotle in the fourth century BC and Ludwig Wittgenstein nearly 2,500 years later. Aristotle thought of ethical judgment as a matter of discernment and fine distinctions, literally seeing a situation in all its complexity. Wittgenstein wrote of rules in his "Philosophical Investigations" that "only experienced people can apply them aright". You can be up to your neck in rules, but they don’t in themselves tell you how to apportion blame, or to whom, or how much. For that, you need to look at what’s in front of you. If you don’t, you’re driving in the dark without headlights.
Placing practice above principle puts the burden of judgment back on us, and leaves us vulnerable to life’s obscurities and self-deceptions, to the tangle of our duties and commitments. We might aspire to clarity, but we could easily be blind. That said, it’s an idea which represents the difficulty of doing the right thing, and why would we want less than that?
Let’s face it, René Descartes isn’t the most fashionable of philosophers. All that mumbo-jumbo about ghosts in the machine doesn’t fit with current hardnosed views of the mind, which see it as more like a machine in the machine.
But boy, could René write! His “Discourse on Method”—the first piece of serious philosophy that I ever read—opens with this wonderful statement: "Good sense is the most evenly shared thing in the world, for each of us thinks he is so well endowed with it that even those who are the hardest to please in all other respects are not in the habit of wanting more than they have."
Descartes was right: people don’t like to admit that they are wrong. But he had a revolutionary idea—"never to accept anything as true that I did not know to be evidently so".
This was Descartes’ principle of doubt. It led him to disbelieve anything but his awareness of himself as a thinking being. Cogito ergo sum. That logic led him to some decidedly odd conclusions: but there’s still something to learn from René’s doubts.
Science—the method that underpins what we know most reliably about the world and ourselves—rests on uncertainty. The late, great Karl Popper argued that the only thing that can be definitively proved by an experiment is that a hypothesis is wrong. Scientists always express, or should express, their ideas in terms of uncertainty. Remember the historic announcement last year that CERN had discovered the Higgs Boson? What they said was: "We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma". What’s that 5 sigma business? It’s a statistical measure: it means that there’s a 1 in 3.5m chance that the most important discovery in particle physics in the past 50 years is wrong.
I’m not saying that scientists wake up each morning driven by the passion to prove that their ideas are flawed. We all hope that our theories are 5 sigma. But we have to live with the only certainty—that our opinions could be wrong.
Contrast that with the expectation that most people have of their leaders. The hallmark of charismatic politicians is that they have absolute confidence in their opinions. Politicians who change their minds on the basis of evidence are accused of U-turns, rather than being hailed for their wisdom. But unwillingness to doubt has given the world most of its political disasters—from Darius’s invasion of Greece to the present adventures in Iraq.
Doubt is the engine of intelligence. We suffer from a surfeit of certainty. The most powerful philosophy is always to ask whether there is a possibility that you are wrong.
As a psychotherapist, I listen to people’s personal philosophies every day. Everyone fashions a set of beliefs by which they try to cope with what life throws at them. Sometimes what gets in the way are unrecognised philosophies of extremism. People either believe themselves to be responsible for everything that befalls them, or they consider themselves victimised by the outside world. "Doer" and "done to" are both damaging polarities.
So, for me, steps one and two for a personal philosophy are neither to underestimate nor overestimate one’s individual capabilities. This becomes easier if we can link up with those pesky things called feelings. We need to acknowledge that what we first think or feel may not reflect the whole truth. We need to question our knee-jerk responses to situations, to pause and consider them in greater depth, so that we can be sure we are not responding out of fear or prejudice.
Knowing our feelings helps us to develop personal ethics. We won’t always be able to act on everything we feel—especially feelings of hatred, revenge and jealousy—but knowing what we feel allows us to manage our thoughts and actions.
Identifying feelings allows us to remain curious about what’s coming at us from the outside world, and what emerges from within us. It enables us to take old experiences out of the box and explore how we feel and think about them today, rather than leaving them frozen. It allows us to be alive to new experiences. Knowing what we feel means we can connect with others from a basis of respect rather than fear, and link with those who feel differently. We need to know what we personally believe in, for sure, but we also need to be flexible in heart and mind. Then we can make an authentic response to the problems life poses.