The problem of philosophy: relevance

Isaiah Berlin knew it:

…he found the philosophy as it was practiced in the years immediately after the Second World War in Britain, and particularly in Oxford, lacking in the human relevance that he needed in a subject, lacking in the connection with human dilemmas. I mean one could even say and this of course was anathema to philosophers, then, and still is to some extent today, that he wanted to practice and study and examine and explore a type of thinking which shed light on the dilemmas of human life. In the very last conversation I had with him before he died, I asked him whether there was a single thinker or writer or philosopher who had influenced him more than any other, and without a single second of hesitation, he said ‘Herzen’. In other words, he didn’t mention a philosopher such as David Hume or John Stuart Mill, or any of the philosophers, some of them whom he admired greatly, he immediately mentioned a radical writer rather than an academic philosopher, as one who had influenced him more than any other single writer or thinker.

One wonders if all that is left of philosophy is a bunch of dictionary editors and literary critics. The sophists of the Academy have truly ravaged it over the years, but you can’t keep a true thing down forever.


4 Responses to “The problem of philosophy: relevance”

  1. one billion daleks Says:

    Yes, it depends I suppose on whether the preoccupations of Mind revolve around the well-being of the organic body in which it is housed, or upon it’s own psychological well-being. And given that organic well-being is a pre-requisite for psychological well-being, and that the context in which both Herzen and Berlin abided was antagonistic in that respect, it is not surprising perhaps that their ‘philosophical’ outlook was somewhat pragmatic.

    But once the day-to-day needs of the organism are adequately attended to, and the subjective Self has resolved ‘hang-ups’ relating to the history of it’s emergence as a thinking entity (in other words, stops obsessing over perceived injustices or the trials of organic existence), then the Mind is liberated towards solely contemplating the circumstance of it’s own existence.

    Thus the ancient Greek thinkers, living a simple and comfortable life in benign circumstances, were naturally disposed towards ‘pure’ philosophical enquiry. Whereas Herzen and Berlin, coming from a much harsher context, remained pre-occupied and fixated by that, and saw such musings as indulgent. For even though they escaped their harsh situations in a physical sense, they apparently failed to transcend them psychologically too.

    In other words, instead of ‘getting over it’, they became ‘bitter and twisted’. And in that respect, their rejection of pure philosophical endeavour can be viewed as a kind of temper-tantrum, sulking – along the lines of ‘it’s not fair!!!’. Likewise Nietzsche of course. Thus they kinda missed the point …

    An interesting blog!
    All The Best!

  2. beholdtheman Says:

    I think you have a romantic view of the ancient Greeks.

    It’s hardly the case that Socrates and Plato lived comfortable lives in benign circumstances, re: Peloponnesian War. Plato’s life consisted of many painful blunders and Socrates made himself quite unpopular. Aristotle lived in more benign circumstances than Plato and saw some of Plato’s theories as a useless crock of shit. Read Plato yourself to discover how dogmatic, arrogant, absurd and pointless he is.

    As for ‘bitter and twisted’: it was Socrates who saw death as a cure to the corruption of existence. Plato despised and mistrusted his fellow Athenians for what they had done to his idol. He saw this world as broken and unreal, preferring the idealist fantasy-world of forms. Both couldn’t face their emotions and tried to flee from their them; both failed.

    Platonism often carries connotations of escapism, with not dealing with the real-world and ‘getting over it’, and for good reason I believe.

    Nietzsche’s hallmark ‘yes! to life’ (Eternal Occurence myth) must surely count as ‘getting over it’, wouldn’t you say? Of course, Nietzsche wrote many things being driven by resentment, but you’ll find that what he resented most was – surprise surprise – resentment, ‘not getting over it’. He even coined the term ‘ressentiment’ in order to rail against it. Have you ever read any Nietzsche, or have you only read negative views about him?

  3. one billion daleks Says:

    Well, the impression I get from your blog is that philosophical enquiry is an indulgence of privelege / comfort, a view I’m inclined to endorse.

    But it depends of course on what criteria are deemed to constitute a ‘comfortable life’. In the sense I mean, all of these individuals were fortunate enough to pursue their philosophical muse according to whim, unlike the majority of their fellows, who were compelled to attend to more immediate demands of day-to-day survival. And thus they were plainly ‘comfortable’ with their choice, insofar as they had alternative modes of existence available to them which they preferred to reject in favour of their muse.

    So Plato’s ‘painful blunders’ were self-inflicted and as such a discretionary rejection of comforts that he could always avail himself of, should the ‘pain’ become too great, Thus he operated at the edge of his ‘comfort zone’, rather than outside – and thus bereft – of it.

    Similarly with Socrates – he actively courted confrontation, being ‘unpopular’ did not apparently trouble him, in fact he seemed to delight in it, thus was psychologically ‘comfortable’ with that ‘lifestyle choice’.

    Socrates seeing “death as a cure to the corruption of existence”, and Plato’s equivalent demeanour do not in my view automatically equate to being ‘bitter and twisted’ – they could be matter-of-fact appraisals of firsthand experience – given that most individuals of that time regularly slaughtered their own food, and – unlike modern day humans – had intimate and regular familiarity with death. Though it is possible to put a ‘spin’ on such perceptions of course!

    And as you observe, “Nietzsche wrote many things being driven by resentment” which to my mind is thus far removed from ‘getting over it’, really. In that light, any ‘yes to life’ looks like a brave face.

    But in each case, their dispositions were abstracted and conceptual – exercises in searching for psychological comfort for an intellect whose primary functions were rendered redundant by comfort quite sufficient for their needs. In other words, not having to, or choosing not to, worry about food, shelter, and security – and seeking relief from the consequent ennui.

    As such, it wouldn’t surprise me to think that neither Berlin nor Herzen found much ‘comfort’ in the idle contemplations of men who, compared to themselves, led relatively comfortable lives, and whose angst was self-inflicted rather than imposed by external factors.

    All The Best!

  4. beholdtheman Says:

    I have made the wrong impression. I do not wish to cast philosophy, in all its forms, as solely an indulgent endeavour. I mean only to criticise those forms of philosophy which are not relevant to how one lives their life.

    What I reject is idle philosophical speculation in general, and in particular, developing conceptual models and theories for no other reason than that is one’s profession, or out of a desire for status.

    What I endorse is practical wisdom; philosophy as it is applied directly to daily life and one’s journey throughout life. Here I refer primarily to the Existentialists and the Greco-Roman Moralists (Seneca, Epicurus, etc.), as well as theoretical psychologists, such as Freud, Frankl, Maslow, and theologians and mythologists such as Joseph Campbell.

    The former is the dominant philosophy these days; the latter is lost. I think that is a very sad state of affairs.

    I don’t believe Nietzsche’s bravery was merely superficial. To hate hatred is not to hate in any normal sense of the word. Likewise, to resent resentment, as Nietzsche did, is not to resent in any normal sense of the word. To hate hatred may be called love; to resent resentment may be called embrace. Embracing life, being responsible to life, with no excuses, even with all its ‘unfairness’ and pain, is what Nietzsche and the Exisentialists were all about.

    Philosophy can provide consolation in many of life’s dramas and dilemmas. I see nothing wrong with that. Ideally, it should provide guidance throughout all of life’s journey. It need not be merely a solution to boredom, and I don’t think it was merely that for all the philosophers mentioned above.

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