Philosophy and Living, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 1

What Philosophy is

SHALL I live for ever? What am I? Am I free or a machine? Is there a God? Is the universe such that the good must ultimately prevail? What is good, anyhow? What is the right relation between an individual and society? What ought we to do with our lives? What does "ought " really mean? What is life all about?

A man's first approach to philosophy is often due to the hope of finding clear answers to such questions. A high official of the Indian Government once said to me, " The whole aim of philosophy should be to discover whether human beings live again after death. If they don't, this life itself is not worth living."

I hold that my friend was mistaken both as to the importance of human survival and as to the function of philosophy. Yet he was right in one respect. Philosophy should have some bearing on the actual needs of human beings. It should help us to live, to adjust our behaviour more appropriately to the actual universe in which we find ourselves. My friend was wrong only in believing that the sole function of philosophy was to solve a certain question of fact; he was right in holding that philosophy should have some concrete result.

Philosophy is a way of life. It is not simply an intellectual discipline. Of course a rigorous intellectual discipline is included in philosophy; but no matter how rigorous, no matter how subtle and conscientious, intellectual activity alone is not by itself philosophy, in the fullest sense of that ambiguous but important word. Philosophy is an attitude taken up by the mind in relation to its whole world; a mental tone or temper which should affect the whole of a man’s practical living, giving it a sanity, a coherence, a constancy of direction, which it could not otherwise have. Philosophy, according to the original Greek meaning of the word and its common English usage, is the love or the pursuit of wisdom, and wisdom involves action. A man who knew everything and did nothing about it would be no philosopher. Inevitably philosophical contemplation points beyond itself. It suggests an attitude to life, a mode of behaviour appropriate in beings such as ourselves, faced with a universe such as ours; or as ours is tentatively judged to be when we have learnt to see it from the point of view of the informed and cautious philosophical intelligence.

The sense in which I am using the word "philosophy" is not the only important sense ill which it is used. The very influential modern school of philosophers known as the Logical Positivists give the word a much more restricted sense. They mean by it a purely intellectual discipline, and an intellectual discipline of a very special sort. They divide traditional philosophy into two parts, one of which they call "metaphysics" and the other "philosophy." Their starting-point is the contention that no sentence has any meaning at all unless it can be verified in sense-experience. (Or, if it cannot actually be verified, at least we must know what kind of sense-experience would verify it.) They then argue that most of what is commonly known as philosophy is in this sense meaningless verbiage, which unfortunately seems to have meaning. This they call "metaphysics." In their view the question whether external objects exist when no one is perceiving them is meaningless. All questions about the "reality" of the physical world, or about the "reality" of the mind, all questions about a "hidden reality" behind our experience, all questions about the "objective reality" of good and evil, are meaningless and "metaphysical," since they pretend to refer to something which' cannot be verified in sense-experience. On the other hand, questions of fact which can be verified in sense-experience are questions not for philosophy but for science, and must be settled by careful observation and experiment. Philosophy, according to the Logical Positivists, is concerned solely with the logical analysis of thinking, or rather of correct thinking. It is not concerned with any matter of fact, but solely with the correct form and scope and limitations of thinking about any kind of facts whatever. Readers who wish at once to gain an understanding of the point of view of the Logical Positivists should study the following three small books: A. J, Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic, Rudolph Carnap's The Unity of Science, and his Philosophy and Logical Syntax.

In this book I shall not use the word "philosophy" in this restricted sense, but in the traditional sense. In the course of my survey I shall often refer to the theories of Logical Positivism, which constitutes one of the main growing-points of modern thought; but for reasons which I shall later explain I do not accept without qualification the fundamental contention about the difference between sense and nonsense. Consequently I shall not begin by throwing overboard almost the whole of traditional philosophy. But in dealing with each of the traditional subjects I shall try to consider the matter in the light of the arguments which the Logical Positivists have brought to bear on it.

Philosophy, then, for the purpose of this book, is the pursuit of wisdom. The philosophical motive is the will to understand one's experience as a whole, and to act accordingly. Sheer intellectual inquisitiveness is not the sole motive of philosophy. No doubt it does playa very important part in philosophical exploration. It affords the hand-to-mouth interest and relish. It turns intellectual toil into an adventure. But behind it must lie the genuine philosophical spirit itself, the will for sane and enlightened action in relation to the actual world.

Even if a man happens to be by profession an academic philosopher, who has to devote his main energy to minute logical analysis, he must do so, if he is to be a genuine philosopher, not for curiosity alone, nor yet for bread and butter alone, but because this course seems, when all is taken into account, to be demanded by his experience as a whole. That is, for him with his special powers, it seems. the wise course to undertake, not merely for self-interest but as a member of the human community.

Though philosophy does not' end with intellectual activity, absolute intellectual integrity must be the philosopher's working ideal. It is true that intellect is in origin the handmaid of practical need. It is true, and immensely important, that all but the simplest intellectual activity is swayed unwittingly by personal needs and social needs, which determine what must seem plausible and what not. But however difficult the enterprise, intellect must strive to bring such needs fully into consciousness; and, when they are irrelevant, must try to discount their influence. While the mind is seeking intellectual truth, it must so far as possible avoid being swayed by any desire other than the desire for truth, It must beware of accepting theories merely for their pleasantness, or merely for their unpleasantness. In this sense at least, whatever the precise meaning of troth, it must seek truth for truth's sake alone. But since truth is infinitely complex, and life is brief, a man must perforce choose which regions of truth he will explore, and which he will merely note from afar. And if his aim is genuinely philosophical, his choice will be controlled not merely by intellectual curiosity but by the will to discover and practise the way of life which is most reasonable when everything relevant is taken into account.

In some circles which claim to be progressive it is fashionable to despise philosophy as mere hair-splitting, without any reference to practical life. The charge is not wholly without foundation. The fault, however, has lain not with philosophy but with certain philosophers. For my part I am convinced that philosophy at its best really can provide something of very great importance to the individual and to society. It can in a sense tell us what life is about. I do not of course mean that it can say what the universe as a whole is about. In that connection it can make only tentative guesses, and suggest an appropriate humility. But it really can help a man to discover what, if the world and human nature are what they seem to be, is the most satisfactory aim for the individual and for the race.

But though philosophy can and should help us toward wisdom, it cannot do so if our minds are in any serious way damaged or warped. The will for wise action is very strictly conditioned by the circumstances of a man's life. And the extent to which that will can take effect on any whole society is also very strictly conditioned by circumstances.

There is some ground for saying that modern civilisation is peculiarly lacking in philosophy. It certainly has urgent need of it. Natural science has given us prodigious mechanical power. We have the physical means to make a happier and more vital world, yet we use our wealth and our skill largely for purposes that are trivial or actually destructive. Though we have power, we have not wisdom. But why have we not wisdom? No doubt as a race we lack it because as a species we have only half emerged from the brute. Very few of us, indeed, are capable of more than rare and precarious gleams of it. But there can be little doubt that, even with such limited powers as we have, we might in more favourable circumstances have been much saner and wiser than we are. The conditions of most men's lives are not favourable to philosophical contemplation and dispassionate judgment. Most of us have been brought up to prize only trivial ends; and most of us as adults have little energy to spare from the struggle for a living. Moreover, because our whole social order is insecure and haphazard, so that we are always dreading an economic crisis or a world war, it is difficult for us to see things with philosophical detachment.

Before we can begin, as a race, to practise wisdom, the widespread economic causes of anxiety, prejudice, and vindictiveness must be abolished. Not till the masses of the world's workers are freed from poverty and oppression and fear and the sense of futility will they be seriously influenced by the philosophical spirit. Where there is grave mental frustration philosophy cannot flourish. Courage and revolutionary fervour may occur, but not the philosophical will to see things whole and act appropriately. And in the last resort it is the masses that count. So long as the masses are incapable of the philosophical spirit, governments themselves, whether democratic or dictatorial, will also prove incapable of it.

If the philosophical spirit had been in control after the European War and during the two following decades, if Germany had been treated decently, if the League had been worked sincerely, the present breakdown of civilisation would never have happened. And to-day, though perhaps our most urgent need is for a radical and world-wide social change, and though it may be that this great change can be achieved only by revolutionary ardour; yet, even so, if the dispassionate philosophical spirit fails to play its tempering and enlightening part, revolution will after all give us only a new and more ruthless barbarism. No doubt the main crisis of our age is the social and political struggle between "Property" and the forces making for a more vital social order. No doubt this struggle mostly takes the form of a struggle between Fascism and Socialism. But underlying this conflict, and cutting right across it in a most bewildering fashion, there is a still deeper conflict which is difficult to name. Briefly it is the conflict between on the one side charity and reason, and on the other side morbid hate and unreason. So seductive, is this spirit that it often leads astray even those who believe themselves to be champions of charity and reason.

This book is written, then, in the conviction that for the founding of a civilised world we need not only revolutionary fervour but also philosophical breadth and depth of vision; and also in the belief that, besides the few who have time and aptitude for a detailed study of philosophy, many are now feeling the need to clarify their experience of the world as a whole, not merely for idle curiosity but for better orientation and action. Opposed to them are the hosts who fear thought as they fear poison, and are doing their best to destroy such power as the civilised intelligence still retains in the world.

I shall consider a number of great philosophical problems, but I shall do so with a special aim in view, namely to show their bearing on the philosophical spirit. I shall try to deal with each of these subjects with full academic conscientiousness, but necessarily I shall fall far short of academic thoroughness or completeness. Though I cannot explore every avenue that the discussion opens up, I shall at least attempt to point out problems that I have not time to investigate. In respect of each subject my aim will be not merely to reach a tentative conclusion, but more particularly to draw from the discussion some positive gain for the understanding of the philosophical spirit.

At the end of the book the reader will find, as an Appendix, a Guide to Reading Philosophy. This is meant to be read after the main body of the book, but some readers may choose to refer to the relevant part of the Appendix after reading each chapter.

I shall begin my survey of philosophy with the subject which my Anglo-Indian friend regarded as the supreme purpose of philosophy. The question of personal immortality is of interest to most human beings, and it is one which opens up many questions of a more distinctively philosophical type. I introduce it at this early stage not in the hope of reaching definite conclusions but to illustrate the philosophical method and the philosophical spirit.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30